Question: When is a commodity server no longer a commodity server? Answer: When the system is so darn powerful it can run your data center. That's the deal with the latest crop of server CPUs, including Intel's Xeon 5500 unveiled on Monday, and AMD's upcoming six-core Istanbul. It's all of a piece with my theory that processing power has become ubiquitous, and figuratively free.By this I mean that, while chips certainly still cost money -- for the Xeon 5500 series, roughly $200 to $1,500, depending on SKU -- what you get for the money is performance that's orders of magnitude greater than with, say, the 150-MHz, 1995-era Pentium Pro. (That's the iconic chip Intel senior vice president Pat Gelsinger conjured up for comparison at Monday's intro, which he billed as "the most important server launch" since the PP.)
OK, so you have to discount the hype the accompanies such events. Indeed, the whole dog and pony show which constitutes a launch these days is kind of superfluous, since as Gelsinger noted, hundreds of thousands of Xeon 5500s have shipped already. So the occasion actually marked an "official" unveiling, and provided an opportunity for dozens of server OEMs to post press releases announcing their Xeon-equipped systems.
Which brings me back to my point. All through the Intel webcast (when I wasn't fumbling with my occasionally balky connection and hoping Time Warner wouldn't cut me off for using a wee bit of streaming bandwidth midday), I couldn't put my finger on what was bothering me. And then it hit me, this idea that commodity servers might still be commodities as far as price is concerned. However, they're certainly not when it comes to performance.
This is a really interesting, "bad for the vendor, good for the consumer" scenario. It's good for Intel and AMD in terms of pushing out volumes of their respective server processors. However, it's probably not so great for Tier 1 vendors like IBM, which increasingly see the formerly low-to-middle commodity servers pushed up into the mid-middle and upper edges of the market.
That's where Big Blue's own highly differentiated Power architecture boxes once had that stratum to themselves, and also where mainframe class systems used to own an even clearer performance niche. Nowadays, not so much. (Though, sure, there are still some arguments to be made for the bigger boxes' bandwidth, throughput, storage, and incremental performance. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Yet even here, virtualization and the high-bandwidth links available in Xeon deflate a lot of these arguments.)
Hey, this continued downward pressure on server hardware is undoubtedly part of the dynamic behind the much talked about potential IBM acquisition of Sun Microsystems.
The ultimate playing out of where we're headed here is when you see Google talk openly (indeed, they brag) about the farms of commodity servers they build themselves, without hardly even an enclosure around those things. Only, like I said (and, since it's a blog, I'll say it again), those commodity servers ain't so commodity anymore. They could even run your cloud. Or your data center.
See two videos related to this stuff:
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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.