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Issue of July 2005 

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RISC rules the core

There has been a lot of hoopla about how the x86 (x86-64 or just x86) and Itanium 2 server platforms are displacing RISC boxes. How much of this is true? Here’s what is really happening on the core server front in by Anil Patrick R

Are RISC platforms on the way out? Will x86/Itanium 2-based servers take over the enterprise core soon? This seems to be the focus of much media attention.

However, the hypothesis that RISC servers are being inched out of the server world is not accurate, arising more from a lack of understanding than anything else. RISC platforms have been around for quite a while. And, as things stand, they are going to be around for a while longer.

Executive Summary
RISC rules the core
There has been much furore and varied takes on RISC platforms fading away into oblivion. It is time for a reality check as well as a look at emerging challengers such as the Itanium 2.

Power pill
RISC-based servers are still the first option for mission-critical core applications. Itanium 2-based servers are also being considered by many Indian organisations.

Desktop server

Much of the hype about RISC platforms is about their decreasing marketshares on the desktop/workstation platforms. Apple replacing the PowerPC with Intel processors in its product line-up does not necessarily mean that the same holds true for servers.

RISC architectures have been synonymous with servers for over 15 years now. The scene is no different today. Think of any core application—be it telecom billing, core banking, ERP or SCM—they are largely deployed on RISC servers.

The sales of RISC servers continue to grow, indicating that the Indian enterprises still prefer this platform when it comes to core computing. “The RISC server market in India was worth $202.19 million in 2004. When comparing Q1 2005 over Q1 2004, RISC server sales have increased by 13.4 percent in revenues,” reveals Sanjit Sinha, Senior Manager, Hardware Group, IDC (India). IDC (India) does not see the x86/Itanium 2-based servers emerging as a threat to RISC heavyweights.

Scaling down to fit

In order to remain competitive and attract more buyers in the mid-range server space, RISC vendors are attempting to provide better value for money. The proof of this is that vendors have brought down the entry-level barrier for RISC servers. Today RISC servers are available at an entry point of 2-way servers upwards. This capability along with partitioning (physical/virtual) capabilities and future scalability without software changes make them quite attractive for enterprises looking at lower-cost RISC options. According to Anil Valluri, “The advantages that RISC-based servers can offer customers include scaling (without software changes) up to 128 CPUs in a single architecture (extreme scaling). This is possible because RISC servers are not an extension of the 2- or 4-way architectures used in the x86 world.”

However, it is interesting to note that it is not the entry-level/new buyer server market that is looking at these servers. Instead, these are being used by existing users who are comfortable with RISC. It is also being used by large enterprises who want the same RISC family product to make management easier.

Expanding horizons

The computing envelope has expanded over the years. This is why non-x86 platforms are moving into extreme
performance and smaller options are getting into the high-end space
Anil Valluri
Country Director
Client Solutions
Sun Microsystems

So what is the hullabaloo all about? It is partly due to the surging x86 server revenue growth, which IDC puts at 22.1 percent when considering Q1 2005 over Q1 2004.

Today, the server market can be roughly divided into the high-performance/core computing and the non-mission-critical server segments. When it comes to hardcore requirements such as server consolidation, RISC platforms are yet to be matched. “Consolidation is catching up, with improved telecom infrastructure driving this trend,” says Jyothi Satyanathan, Country Manager, pSeries & OpenPower, IBM India.

However, in terms of the non-core, less mission-critical applications, the scene is different. Newer kids on the block (Itanium and x86 platforms) have expanded the overall server market. What the newer platforms have done is to expand the server arena by plugging the gap where lower-priced, value-for-money, non-core server platforms are in demand. “The computing envelope has expanded over the years. This is why non-x86 platforms are moving into extreme performance and smaller options are getting into the high-end space. Both segments are moving higher, but the distance between them is still maintained,” opines Anil Valluri, Country Director, Client Solutions, Sun Microsystems.

Matters close to the core

With enterprises increasingly focussing on the consolidation of existing servers, RISC server demand shows no signs of abating

Although large enterprises are experimenting with Itanium 2 and Opteron/Xeon platforms for non-core applications, the segment is still partial to RISC when it comes to data centre consolidation and enterprise wide applications (EWA). x86/Itanium 2 platforms have not made their presence felt in this area.

Consolidation is catching up, with improved telecom infrastructure driving this trend
Jyothi Satyanathan
Country Manager
pSeries & OpenPower
IBM India

For Indian organisations, the comparison while evaluating a core server platform is between one RISC platform and another. This means a choice between HP (PA-RISC), IBM (Power), Sun (UltraSPARC IV) and SGI (MIPS). Apart from performance/reliability, these platforms also offer other advantages.

Features such as dual-core, multithreading, clustering and true 64-bit OS platforms have been available in the RISC world for years. These are tried-and-tested platforms trusted by most organisations when it comes to the core. Multithreading and dual-core are comparatively recent developments for x86/Itanium 2.

Some of these servers also permit adding newer processors for upgrading, or adding Itanium 2 processors to the existing platforms. Today, with enterprises increasingly focussing on the consolidation of existing servers, RISC server demand shows no signs of abating. This will be one of the biggest drivers of RISC adoption this year.

As a case in point, The Stock Exchange, Mumbai decided to consolidate its mission-critical servers (from the existing 14) using two RISC servers. Technologies such as virtualisation and partitioning that are available on HP rp8400 servers were used.

The emerging challenger

Itanium 2 belongs to a different class built from ground up. It goes hand in hand with processors such as the Power 5
Avinash Fotedar
Director Marketing
Silicon Graphics Systems (India)

While the x86 platform does not offer much of a challenge to RISC, Itanium 2 may emerge to create problems in the high-performance computing (HPC) space. This is mainly because Itanium 2 is a true 64-bit platform unlike the mixed 32/64 bit Opteron/Xeon environments.

“Opterons basically use a 32-bit architecture that has been scaled up to 64-bit. Itanium 2 belongs to a different class built from ground up. It goes hand in hand with processors such as the Power 5,” says Avinash Fotedar, Director Marketing, Silicon Graphics Systems (India).

However, the adoption of Itanium 2 is still not strong enough to worry RISC vendors. As per IDC (India) figures, the Itanium platform has witnessed a revenue growth of 15.7 percent (Q1 2005 over Q1 2004). The main reason behind this lack of interest in adoption has been the fact that ISV support for Itanium 2 is not sufficient for enterprises to buy in.

Another reason why the Itanium 2 does not score well is its positioning against RISC servers. However, many organisations are experimenting with Itanium 2 for their applications. Among the major success stories for Itanium 2 in India is Sundaram Clayton Limited (SCL) which runs SAP R/3 on Itanium 2.

The Stock Exchange, Mumbai is using Itanium 2 and Linux to run its surveillance system. It is also testing a combination of Itanium 2s and Xeon machines running Windows to run their Web sites. The Web servers are Xeon-powered while the databases are hosted on Itanium 2 gear.

Powered by Unix

RISC servers, along with Unix, have been synonymous with mission-critical applications and tireless performance for a long while now. Therefore, RISC-Unix is still the platform of choice for core applications.

Sectors such as telecom, banking, education and government lead the use of Unix. Traditionally, these sectors have favoured Unix due to the advantages it offers. This dependence is another factor why the shift to other platforms is slower in these segments. “When it comes to reliable computing, the RISC-Unix combination is still preferred, especially for applications such as core banking and telecom billing where performance and reliability are the prime concerns,” says Jyothi Satyanathan.

Due to this traditional dependence on Unix, there has been a pickup in Linux adoption. Organisations find it easier to migrate to Linux because of the common roots it shares with Unix. Availability of 64-bit Linux is a major boost for Linux adoption. Today, Linux runs on IBM OpenPower systems. The support of enterprise application vendors such as Oracle and the entry of Sybase into Linux ensures that the open source OS will go further this year.

The use of Windows is still restricted to entry and mid-level enterprise applications. This is mainly due to the superiority of Unix and its variants in core, mission-critical applications.

Anil Patrick R can be reached at

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