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SMB class of x86

x86 and x86-64 servers are emerging as the ideal server platforms for Indian SMBs running enterprise applications. Large enterprises have also started using them for deploying applications that aren't quite mission-critical. by Anil Patrick R

x86 platforms are yet to prove their mettle in running mission-critical applications. However, they are catching up as is evident from the impressive year-on-year growth that x86 servers have witnessed

Considering the scale of operations of Indian SMBs and their concerns on the cost front, RISC or IA-64 can be an overkill. This is where x86 and x86-64 platforms offered by AMD (AMD64) and Intel Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T) offer unbeatable value for money. These are also being used to run non-critical applications by Indian enterprises.

The x86 platform has maintained a lead over RISC platforms for quite a while in terms of sheer numbers. x86 has always had the advantage of costing less than RISC due to larger volumes and resultant developments in fabrication technology. “If affordability is the key, the x86 platform comes into the picture. In terms of TCO and long-term savings, the x86 market is definitely growing,” said Jyothi Satyanathan, CM—pSeries & OpenPower, IBM India.

x86 platforms are yet to prove their mettle in running mission-critical applications. However, they are catching up as is evident from the impressive year-on-year growth that x86 servers have witnessed. According to IDC (India) figures, Indian x86 market revenues grew by 22.1 percent (AMJ, 2005 over AMJ, 2004).

In part, this can be attributed to the entry of x86-64 and more importantly to the upgradation of existing 1-way servers to 2-way and higher. As of now, the price point has dropped enough to make 2-way 64-bit x86 servers an entry-level option.

Executive Summary
SMB class of x86
Indian organisations are experimenting with x86 and x86-64 platforms.

Power pill
Opt for x86-64 platforms instead of plain x86 for better future proofing.

The dark horse

For quite a while the RISC players managed to keep x86 platforms away from the server space by providing better performance and reliability for critical applications.

32-bit servers based on Intel Xeons (Xeon and then Xeon MP) and Pentiums (Pentium 3 followed by Pentium 4) were the first from the x86 stable to make their presence felt in the enterprise. These managed to fit perfectly into the SMB space, which had neither the budget nor the requirements for RISC machines. However, these are facing severe competition from 64-bit Itanium and Opteron-based servers.

Behind the scenes

The x86-64 platform is an extension of existing 32-bit x86 processors. AMD was the first to get on the 64-bit bandwagon with its Opteron processor launch in April 2003.

Intel took its own time to come out with the 64-bit Xeon MP (in June 2004). Till then Intel had touted the Itanium and the 32-bit Xeon platforms till the realisation dawned that the Xeon had to scale up to meet the threat from the Opteron.

Basically, both AMD64 and EM64T (Extended Memory 64 Technology) use the good old 32-bit x86 architecture with 64-bit memory extensions to address up to 64 GB of RAM. So although these processors aren’t ‘true’ 64-bit designs, they fit nicely into an SMB’s needs.

This segment was on the look out for a 64-bit environment with higher memory addressability and x86-64 fitted in perfectly. Already many SMBs have deployed enterprise applications on the x86 platform with satisfactory results. However, performance will be known only in the long run. Some of the application areas that have benefited from the use of x86-64 platforms are Web servers, HPTC (High Performance Technical Computing) applications, EDA (Electronic Design Automation), and databases.

Many vendors claim to be in different stages of deploying enterprise wide applications such as ERP on x86-64. Sticking to a tried and tested RISC platform for now may be better till x86-64 bit technology matures.

On track 64

Of late, mainstream
applications demand more memory than the traditional 32-bit limit of 4 GB. This
necessitated memory
extension to be able to
address up to 64 GB
Rajesh Gupta
General Manager
Technical Support South Asia Intel

While 64-bit is a new buzzword in the x86 segment, RISC went 64-bit a long, long time ago. RISC processors had the advantage of being able to address up to 64 GB of memory whereas x86 was limited to a maximum RAM addressability of 4 GB.

This created deployment issues in enterprise applications that demanded more than the 4 GB limit, but still did not warrant the higher costs associated with a RISC option. “Of late, mainstream applications demand more memory than the traditional 32-bit limit of 4 GB. This necessitated memory extension to be able to address up to 64 GB,” said Rajesh Gupta, General Manager, Technical Support South Asia, Intel.

x86 vendors who were still stuck at the entry level server space spotted this opportunity and this resulted in the x86-64 platform’s development. See Box: Behind the scenes for more on the work that x86 vendors did to scale up the 32-bit x86 platform to x86-64

Although 64-bit applications are slow in making their debut on the x86 platform, improved memory addressability for 32-bit applications is driving x86-64 adoption. 64-bit Linux came first with support for x86-64 a while back. The Windows 2003 Server x64 with the capability to support memory extensions made its entry only recently.

Features such as multithreading and dual core on the newer x86-64 processors are also driving adoption. So far dual core is available only on the AMD Opteron. Intel is yet to offer a dual core processor for servers. A dual core Itanium 2 is slated for Q4, 2005.

AMD64 processors are available in 1- to 8-way configurations. This is a limitation for Intel Xeon MP servers which can go only up to 4-way. However, this should not be a barrier for many a SMB from going in for the Intels since 4-way servers are in themselves an overkill of sorts for them.

Hot favourites

At present both AMD64 and EM64T are faring well on the SMB server front. Intel is also keen on migrating 32-bit Xeon buyers to the 64-bit Xeon MP. This is one of the reasons why most server vendors have already stopped or plan to stop selling 32-bit Xeon in favour of the 64-bit Xeon MP.

As of now, the biggest backers of AMD Opteron include the big four—IBM, Sun, HP, and HCL. Xeon servers are available from HP, IBM, and Dell to name a few heavyweights.

AMD Opteron servers are being used by the likes of Zee Telefilms. Some of the users or evaluators of Intel Xeons at present include Tata Motors, Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) Larsen & Toubro (L&T), and Sun Pharma. Tata Motors uses 64-bit Intel Xeon MP servers for their mathematical applications (Matlab) and for running Citrix applications.

Unix vs Tux vs Microsoft

Mukund Ramaratnam
Director, Marketing
AMD Far East (India)

The x86 market, being comparatively nascent, has a larger percentage of non-Unix users than in the traditional RISC world. This is because by the time x86 server technology matured, Linux and Windows server technologies had gained acceptance among the user community.

Sun is pushing Solaris on Opterons which will be a great boost for proprietary Unix on x86. However, none of the other proprietary Unix vendors are interested in pushing their wares on x86 which is quite understandable.

Linux is quite popular in the x86-64 and x86 space. One of the main reasons behind this is the fact that Linux had support for the x86 platform much before any of the proprietary Unix vendors, since Linux grew primarily on this platform. Windows sole focus area has been the x86 (and now Itanium as well) platform for all these years too.

However, according to Mukund Ramaratnam, Director, Marketing, AMD Far East (India), the situation in operating system adoption on AMD Opteron servers has been a mixed bag. “We have customers in the EDA vertical who have been using Linux on AMD Opteron. We have also seen customers implement SAP on Windows on Opteron. Some of our banking customers continue to run their Unix-based applications on AMD hardware as well,” said Mukund Ramaratnam.

This is an interesting scenario indicating that x86-64 is going prime time. If the claims from AMD and Intel are to be believed, many SMBs have started using x86-64 for running mission critical core applications as well.

Anil Patrick R can be reached at

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