Looking beyond the box
Many strokes, though with a little axe, Hew down and fell
the hardest-timbered oak.
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI
server is a server is a server. Or is it? Consider this factoid. Most servers
sold in this country, especially at the entry-level, are little more than togged
up Pentium 4 desktops. Companies buying these are ignoring the fact that these
boxes arent going to be good for anything beyond vanilla file and print.
That may be good enough today but will you still make do with it tomorrow?
Go beyond the entry-level, and there are loads of choices. On the processor
front, you have AMDs Opteron and Intels Xeon. While the latter outsells
the former by a wide margin, there is much to be said in Opterons favour.
AMDs highlighting the performance per watt of this processor which is
indeed a laudable feature considering space constraints in the typical data
centre. Both have gone 64-bit with their x86 server chips, and AMDs already
gone dual core. Intel will follow with dual core Xeons in Q1 2006. This is the
mid-range where gear from the likes of Dell, HP, IBM and Sun vie for space in
the corporate data centre.
Now we come to the top of the mountain where we find RISC boxes being challenged
by the Itanium gear from HP and Big Blues Hurricane-chipset that powers
Xeon boxes into the stratosphere of enterprise computing. The Solaris/SPARC
combo, or the AIX/pSeries one for that matter, remain safe bets for core computing.
Still, CIOs would do well to check out the price performance of Itanium/Xeon/Opteron
gear vis-à-vis RISC boxes.
Rewinding to the beginning, theres the matter of blades. These arent
ready for prime time yet though theyre getting there. Pilot them by all
means, but for now rack-mounts seem to be good for another year.
Theres no getting away from multi-tier topologies for now. Until the x86/Itanium
gear proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that it can scale up there where the
64-way RISC boxes rule, companies need to rely on the Xeon/Opteron gear at the
entry/mid-level, and go in for Unix boxes for their core applications.
Give it a year or two, and things may be different. I say
may, because the jurys still out on how effectively the x86 platform can
scale up, and if RISC can maintain its multi-core lead (the first chips to go
multi-core were RISC processors from IBM and HP). That said, multi-core is the
technology to watch in the mid-level server space. That and proprietary chipsetsexpect
IBM to keep innovating on that front. Intel and HP are going to have their work
cut out fighting Sun/AMD at the entry/mid-level and Unix/RISC at the high-end.
With the Xeon having gone 64-bit, it will take a miracle of sorts to keep the
Itanium relevant beyond HPC. This is where the quote at the top of this piece
comes in, x86 processors have been chipping away at the RISC bastion for a while
now and as the Bard of A. said it so pithily, even the mightiest of oaks can
come a cropper...eventually.
Prashant L Rao
Head of Editorial Operations