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Hardware & Infrastructure
07:40 AM
Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn

The New Power Equation

Tired of renting data-center space and buying more air conditioners? Dual-core chips provide an answer.

For business-technology managers, the marching order for the past few years has been "Do more with less." Now comes a technology--multicore microprocessors--that does just that. The breakthrough chip technology is ready to deliver on its promise to provide more computing horsepower while taking up less space and generating less heat than conventional chips. Multicore processors, which pack multiple processing cores on a single chip, are transforming the design of data centers and providing a way for businesses to add more power and performance to their IT infrastructures without the problems that come with server sprawl.

The two major x86 server chip vendors, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Intel, have reason to believe that multicore technology will be adopted quickly and have a major impact on business computing. Sun Microsystems last week debuted servers that use its new UltraSparc T1 microprocessors, which have eight processing cores. And several other microprocessor suppliers are transitioning their products to multicore technology to increase performance while capping the heat generated by the chips. The chipmakers can "dial down" the clock speed of a processor slightly to reduce power requirements and associated heat dissipation, while increasing overall performance by adding two or more processing engines that perform tasks faster than their single-core counterparts.

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The Tokyo Institute of Technology doesn't need persuading. When the school developed a plan to create the largest supercomputer in Japan and one of the largest in the world, using multicore processors solved the problem of having a limited amount of space for a data center and the related issue of heat generation inside the center.

"We envision a 100-teraflop-scale system running Windows, Linux, or Solaris, which is obviously applicable to researchers using thousands of teraflops of power," says Satoshi Matsuoka, professor in charge of research infrastructure at the Global Scientific Information and Computing Center at Tokyo Tech. "It's pretty obvious this capability wouldn't have been reached without using this dual-core processor technology because we are heavily constrained in terms of space and power budget."

AMD began by delivering dual-core processors for the server market in April and got a market-share boost for its Opteron processor by being the first with multicore technology. Intel recently began shipping its first dual-core Xeons. Both AMD and Intel project that 90% or more of their server-processor shipments by the end of 2007 will be dual core. Startup Azul Systems Inc., meanwhile, offers systems based on a device that integrates 24 processing cores on a single chip.

Risky Business
Still, there's always a risk in being among the first to deploy new and unproven technology, even new chip designs from companies with a long track record like AMD and Intel. Flaws can show up as more customers use the chips for a variety of applications. And it will take time to show whether most applications can scale to take advantage of the performance boost that multiple cores and threads offer.

Multicore technology is showing up first in areas such as clustered computing, and for applications where the ability to handle high volumes of transactional data is crucial. Over the next year, however, multicore processing will spread throughout companies as the technology becomes the means for increasing performance.

Creating the Tokyo Tech supercomputer using single-core processors would have required a data center twice as large as the current one and would have generated nearly twice the heat, Matsuoka says. Just as important, a dual-core implementation has half as many servers, meaning it will be more reliable and less costly to maintain because there are fewer systems to monitor.

Tokyo Tech is among the first to begin installing servers from Sun that are based on its Galaxy platform, which uses eight dual-core AMD Opteron processors, effectively creating a 16-way system in an eight-way machine. The school is installing more than 5,000 dual-core Opteron processors, as well as accelerator-board technology from ClearSpeed Technology plc, which helps computers process large amounts of data in parallel at low power consumption.

Multicore also is showing up in high-end chips. While Sun works closely with AMD on the dual-core Opteron chips, it's also pushing its own UltraSparc T1 processor. The T1 has eight processor cores, and each core has four independent threads, allowing systems based on the chip to theoretically handle 32 operations simultaneously. The multicore approach "will create interest from customers who otherwise would have avoided proprietary processors like the plague," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64.

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