The year was 1974, high-rise rents fell through the floor as The Towering Inferno hit cinema screens, Barbara Streisand raced up the charts with the nostalgic number The Way We Were, and IBM researcher, John Cocker, paved the way for the development of reduced instruction set computing (RISC), by demonstrating that 20 per cent of the instruction set contained within a computer was responsible for 80 per cent of the work.
It was a further six years before Big Blue came out with PC/XT and, subsequently, the RISC system/6000. The idea was to hardwire these workhorse instruction sets into the system’s CPU, reducing its reliance on software and increasing overall processing speeds. With pared down software requirements and increased 64-bit processing grunt, RISC-based systems became the standard choice for data-intensive applications, and, as networking became more pervasive, for high-performance servers.
On the other side of the fence sit Intel’s x86-based servers, which grew out of personal computing systems that offer 32-bit processing, and have carved a sizeable niche in the lower end of the market.
Here’s the rub. Applications designed for 32-bit processors won’t run on 64-bit processors, or vice-versa. Until recently, companies wanting to scale up their processing power were faced with an ominous total overhaul of their applications. Similarly, software developers were largely forced into either 32- or 64-bit camps, as creating applications for both markets at once was cost prohibitive.
Vying for a piece of both pies, hardware heavyweights such as Sun Microsystems, HP and IBM offer servers from both x86 32-bit and RISC 64-bit families. But it is the CPU titans Intel and AMD that have finally come up with scalable solutions to bridge the gap between different processor speeds, well almost.
Bridging the Gap
In the past six months, both AMD and Intel have brought out chips which, they claim, operate at both 32- and 64-bit speeds, and interestingly they have approached the problem from different sides.
AMD’s Opteron is essentially a 32-bit processor having grown out of the x86 architectures, which can operate at a 64-bit speed, given the right operating system. Intel’s Itanium on the other hand is a purpose-built 64-bit processor, which can operate at 32-bit speeds with the help of an emulator.
However, the actual capacity of the chips, and their market potential, has analysts and vendors divided.
While she continues to see strength in the RISC market, senior analyst with IDC, Margaret Banaghan, said both Opteron and Itanium would compete for space in the 64-bit computing market. She cited recent vendor announcements as proof that AMD’s offering was gaining ground.
“Opteron is really becoming popular among the large server companies as they realise there is a real alternative to Intel for 64-bit computing,” Banaghan said. “The recent Sun and HP announcements are providing real choice, which will make Intel intensely protective of its installed base and, consequently, systems will continue to become even more affordable with the price/performance ratio of all systems continuing to improve.
With the weight of IBM, Sun and now HP behind Opteron, AMD is rightfully positive about its future — and so are we.”
Vice-president of Gartner Research in the Asia-Pacific, Matthew Boon, is upbeat about the server market but he doesn’t see Itanium and Opteron in the same market space.
“You won’t see RISC-based systems being displaced by Opteron at all, we are more likely to see it replacing high-end 32-bit style architectures,” he said. “Itanium is positioned as a replacement for RISC not 32-bit. This movement is primarily led by HP. As it moves its RISC systems to Itanium we will certainly see a displacement for RISC by Itanium, but not Opteron.”
And the controversy doesn’t end there. Sun Microsystems’ national product manager for servers and workstations, Robert Becker, said Opteron was the only chip that offered true 32- and 64-bit compatibility.
He argued that the performance degradation resulting from the use of the emulator places the Itanium behind the Opteron at 32-bit speeds.
“We have been really excited about the benchmarks of the Opteron products directly against the Itanium-based servers,” Becker said. “Itanium is just very slow, it is not running anywhere near what the market expected.”
HP on the other hand is loudly proclaiming the Intel’s Itanium to be the future of 64-bit servers, claiming that, despite expectations, the Opteron cannot yet operate effectively at 64-bit speeds because it lacks an operating system that can work across both speeds.
“There are no 64-bit extension operating systems that can support the Opteron, so if you were to buy one of these boxes tomorrow you would just take the standard 32-bit operating system to run on it,” HP Australia’s marketing manager for industry standard servers, Angus Jones, said.
IBM is standing somewhat apart from the controversy, offering xSeries servers based on Intel’s Xeon, Pentium and Itanium chips, as well as the eSeries line based on AMD’s Opteron technology, and its own 64-bit RISC-based pSeries.
IBM Australia’s business unit executive for pSeries business, Chris Farrow, points to the continuing strength of the company’s RISC offerings as a sign that the market for 64-bit processing has yet to feel the effect of the new architectures.
“Some customers may require technology that maintains a strong compatibility with different historical types of computing, so our xSeries product line remain essentially compatible with the x86 style processing market,” Farrow said. “However, the 64-bit RISC processors are able to deliver performance levels that vastly exceed the performance that is possible with the CISC [32-bit] architectures. So that the performance, capability, reliability, consolidation and virtualisation are all strong reasons why organisations continue to expand their usage of those RISC-based servers. Far from going away, the market for RISC-based servers is actually growing.”
Standing their ground
It is not just IBM that sees the role for 64-bit RISC-based computing continuing for some years to come. Despite its professed commitment to the migration from RISC to Itanium-based servers, HP’s Angus Jones said the company would continue to provide support for RISC architectures for many years to come.
“Ultimately, we see a 100 per cent migration away from RISC-based servers, but that does not mean we will no longer be dealing with them,” Jones said. “We are still supporting processors we sold 20 years ago because people are still using them. But the Itanium-based technology is what we are suggesting for the future, that is to say we will not be doing any further development on RISC-based systems.”
Far from being relegated to legacy status, IBM’s Farrow said RISC-based systems would find renewed vigour in the market, as these architectures pressed into the small-end of town.
“You might have thought that you only needed high-end high-capability computing in a small group of very large customers,” Farrow said. “What we are seeing is that while that usage of the technology continues to be true, high-capability computing is also pressing out into small enterprises, into government departments and so forth.”
Resellers were gaining significantly from this trend with the reseller share of IBM’s RISC business doubling over the past 12 months, he said.
“Quite apart from it being boutique, top-end-of-town computing, it is much more ubiquitous, more the sort of computing that is being driven into small and medium enterprises,” Farrow said.
Regardless of the fuss created by the new chips, vendors and analysts alike recognise that RISC architectures are likely to be around for some time to come. Nonetheless, the promises of Itanium and Opteron-based servers make them an ideal offering for companies seeking to consolidate or upgrade, should they live up to vendor promises.
With this in mind, resellers and integrators should become familiar with the range and reach of the new technologies in preparation for a server market that appears to be finally entering a period of recovery.
“It is still a fairly tough market, but we are seeing growth off the back of a couple of fairly tough quarters as organisations have really got to the point where they have to replace systems and upgrade infrastructures because they have put it off for too long,” Gartner’s Boon said.
Ultimately, it will be legacy applications that determine which way particular organisations jump. Those wanting to upgrade to 64-bit processing without loosing out on their 32-bit applications, would be ideally suited to these new architectures.
Alternatively, organisations that already run on a 64-bit RISC platform could leverage these new architectures to gain access to applications created for 32-bit processing.
As the market transitions the real winners may well prove to be independent software vendors, who will gain access to larger markets without having to bare the cost of developing for both speeds simultaneously.