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Issue of July 2005 

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Looking beyond the box

Many strokes, though with a little axe, Hew down and fell the hardest-timbered oak.

- William Shakespeare, Henry VI

A 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 aren’t 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 AMD’s Opteron and Intel’s Xeon. While the latter outsells the former by a wide margin, there is much to be said in Opteron’s favour. AMD’s 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 AMD’s 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 Blue’s 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, there’s the matter of blades. These aren’t ready for prime time yet though they’re getting there. Pilot them by all means, but for now rack-mounts seem to be good for another year.

There’s 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 jury’s 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 chipsets—expect 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

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Indian Express - Business Publications Division

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