IT managers often think of x86-based servers as no more than PCs with bigger and fancier boxes. But AMD and Intel have breathed new life into what were distinctly average-looking servers with a limited future.
Last year AMD introduced 64-bit extensions to its Opteron chip, and this summer Intel launched the 64-bit version of its Xeon chip, called Nocona.
AMD hopes that making x86 processors 64-bit will go a long way toward eroding a primary advantage of 64-bit Risc systems based on chips such as Sun’s UltraSparc and IBM’s Power processor.
Because 64-bit applications can process numbers with twice as many binary digits as their 32-bit counterparts, they can address a far larger range of system memory. A 32-bit system can’t address more than 4Gbytes of memory at a time. With 64-bit systems, this limit theoretically jumps to 16 billion gigabytes.
Many of the new 64-bit x86 servers deliver up to 16Gbytes of addressable memory, which is nowhere near the 64-bit Risc limit but is far more than 32-bit systems. While this change might have little effect on an application like Microsoft Word, it will make a huge difference to any application that needs to store large amounts of data in memory.
“Customers need to think about which applications are memory-intensive and which ones can get the most bang for the buck by moving to a 64-bit operating system,” said Stuart McRae, IBM xSeries manager. “They’re going to get the hardware functionality whether they want it or not.”
With their 64-bit x86 extensions, AMD and Intel have created processors that are 64-bit capable yet can also run all of today’s 32-bit PC software out of the box. Because the 64-bit extensions - called AMD64 by AMD and Extended Memory 64 Technology by Intel - do not slow the performance of 32-bit software, customers should have nothing to lose by adopting them.
But the 64-bit software that will run on these chips is only beginning to emerge. Microsoft recently pushed back the release of a production version of Windows for 64-bit extensions until 2005, and software suppliers see little point in delivering Windows applications before the operating system is ready.
For Linux users, 64-bit OS support is already available from Red Hat and Novell’s SuSE Linux. But even on Linux, application support is in its early stages.
AMD is optimistic that its 64-bit extensions to x86 chips will help it get recognition and a foothold in the enterprise space. While its efforts to tackle Intel’s dominance in the PC market and low-end server market have borne fruit, it is aiming even higher with Opteron.
Most firms have used x86 systems at the front-end or the network edge but Thomas Tong, AMD China senior product marketing manager, believes the new 64-bit offerings can be used at the back-end of enterprises as well as the usual front-end applications.
“Instead of fulfilling simply file-and-print, web server or security functions, 64-bit Opteron is more suitable for the enterprise back-end including database and data-mining applications,” he said.
AMD considers it a natural evolution of server technology, with users of 32-bit technology simply wanting greater speed, power and memory.
As more applications at the front-end offer 64-bit support, AMD expects more 64-bit systems to be deployed there, providing platform consistency from back-end to front-end.
Most suppliers would agree that the migration to 64-bit technology is a natural step, but there is some disagreement on whether 64-bit x86 servers are real rivals to existing high-end 64-bit servers - currently the preserve of IBM mainframes and Risc-based systems.
Intel’s late entry into the 64-bit x86 chip market indicates its uncertainty about the market for such a processor, and while it now acknowledges a need for this server type, it is playing down the likely significance in the short term.
“Our transition of x86 to support 64-bit is driven more by recognition of some parts of the server market now needing 64-bit technology that may not have existed before,” said Intel's Philip Wee. “But not so much for the full blown 64-bit requirements of users currently on mainframes or high-end Risc systems.”
Businesses that are seemingly ripe for the new servers are typically in the biotech, pharmaceutical, oil and gas and car industries. Firms in these sectors have large research operations that now require more number-crunching power for complex calculations and processing large data sets.
Wee pointed out that moving from 32-bit to 64-bit allowed users to access more memory directly, and applications with high and complex calculations would benefit. But he added that demand for this server type was likely to be “niche and quite industry-specific for the time being. In the broader market and core infrastructure world we expect 32-bit to stay for some time - it doesn’t yet pay for many to migrate.”
In terms of expectations for 64-bit computing, right now the majority of 64-bit potential is for the back-end operations of large firms with mainframes and Risc servers. “Database servers with a need for a single image of data - this is where servers need 64-bit scale and ability to do many transactions,” said Wee.
At Hewlett-Packard, the view is similar: while the 64-bit extension to x86 is a natural progression, it really addresses the limitations of existing 32-bit systems. “Opteron and Nocona are helping customers look for that extra performance on front-end type and non-core applications, not necessarily the high-end business-critical Unix systems,” said the company's Kris Chan. “These are still two different markets.”
It is not surprising to hear this from both HP and Intel as they both have long touted their 64-bit Itanium processor-based systems as contenders in the mainframe and Risc markets.
“Itanium is the natural alternative for Risc servers and high-end Unix platforms,” said Chan, “but x86 is not quite aimed at that same market.”
“For us, Itanium is the platform that existing 64-bit users might consider instead of Risc," said Chan’s colleague, Franklin Sze. "It is designed much more for 64-bit tasks and the high-performing back-end operations. x86 is good for Windows and Linux, both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but not so suited to Unix.”
HP has made it clear it has no current plans to put its own Unix OS, HP-UX, onto the new x86 processors.
Intel’s Wee acknowledged that there would be some crossover as the range of servers and customer requirements was now so diverse. “It’s the classic 80/20 rule: it will make sense for some to switch and not so for many others. There is no clear definite rule.”
He also confirmed that the new x86 offerings were not really targeted at Risc servers as such, but more for 32-bit users looking to upgrade and raise performance.
Sun takes shine to new chips
In an intriguing development, traditional Risc-based server player Sun Microsystems indicated it would port its Solaris OS over to the new x86 processors.
The move is aimed at stemming the flow of users switching from UtrasSparc-based Solaris to cheaper industry-standard Linux servers based on Intel and AMD chips.
The scheme has been dismissed by some as a desperate act. “This move will definitely fail, because the majority of Solaris applications are based on UltraSparc chips and not x86 chipsets,” said Chan. “And many of the 32-bit x86 servers Sun has sold so far have been for Linux and not Solaris.”
He added that even AMD realised there was a big hole for 64-bit applications for Solaris on x86. “I don’t think that Solaris on x86 is a very attractive proposition to customers.”
Meanwhile, AMD holds to its belief that the new x86 chips can have a say in the enterprise back-end. “We do have several big wins with US financial institutions who have used Opterons to run database, data-mining and transaction monitoring,” said Tong. He declined to name the institutions concerned, citing confidentiality.
And while application support for 64-bit chips is still a concern for current 32-bit users, Tong said there was no reason why every application needed to support 64-bit computing.
IT suppliers agree that many applications will not need to and will not be able to make use of 64 bit computing yet. While in future most developers will support 64-bit, “right now 32-bit applications will still be prevalent,” said Wee.
Chee Sing Chan writes for Computerworld