Server Den: Architectural Differentiation To Dominate In 2010 - InformationWeek

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Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Server Den: Architectural Differentiation To Dominate In 2010

Spurred by processor innovations from Intel and AMD, we'll see a pitched battle for market leadership among IBM, HP, and Dell.

Sifting the server tea leaves for the new year, one sees clear signs of both the market doldrums lifting and of renewed vigor on the architectural front.

The upshot is that 2010 will be an exciting year. Spurred by processor innovations from Intel and AMD, we'll see a pitched battle for market leadership among IBM, HP, and Dell. So-called niche players could also have an impact. I'm thinking in particular of Sun, which will reposition itself by refocusing on its high-end offerings, after it has been absorbed into Oracle.

True, there may not be huge differences in the guts of competing servers, and price competition won't lessen. Yet everything will be tied in, for example, different connectivity, virtualized environments and infrastructure management angles. The ongoing consolidation imperative and need to maximize utilization is still driving the market in a big way, but to that we've added the imperative to make the data center more flexible.

On the market front, IDC foresees an uptick in 2010. "Platform migration is once again gaining steam in the market and the post-recession server deployment patterns will establish the technology agenda in the data center for the next business cycle," Matt Eastwood, group vice president of Enterprise Platforms at IDC wrote in December.

While a healthy upgrade cycle takes up a lot of slack, I submit that the real excitement in 2010 will come from the processor innovations unleashed in the past year by AMD and Intel (clickable Powerpoint galleries are in the margins).

As I noted in Top 10 Intel & AMD Stories Of 2009, Intel last March rolled out the first server processors based on its next-generation Nehalem microarchitecture. Officially known as the Xeon 5500 series, these marked a highly significant announcement, because this wasn't a minor refresh but rather a major architectural upgrade.

The line is packed with energy efficiency, hyperthreading, and on-board, hardware-assisted virtualization technology. Rather than going into a features laundry list (you can go here to read that), suffice to say that what we've got here are, for want of a better phrase, "adult" processors.

Intel Nehalem-EX
(Click for larger image and to see more slides.)

By this I mean they enable server vendors to deliver systems which blend seamlessly into the next-gen data center, and the imperative to be able to extract the maximum amount of firepower from each unit (high number of physical plus logical processor count, lowest possible power plus cooling). The other important leg is that these new servers fit more compatibly into a dynamically reallocatable data center architecture. (OK, so admittedly this last item isn't quite so easily accomplished yet and is more in the way of a moving target. Still, it's an acknowledged goal and one that's on everybody's checklist.)

Intel followed up in late May with an eight-core Nehalem EX. (The Xeon 5500 parts were designated Nehalem EPs.) The timing of that announcement -- I say timing, because the EX's were just beginning production; shipment wasn't until second half of 2009 -- may have been to steal some of the spotlight from AMD, which rolled out its new server architecture on June 1.

With its new line, code-named Istanbul, AMD was able to recapture some of the publicity momentum, because it became the first to actually ship a six-core processor, in the form of an Opteron implementing the new Istanbul design.

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