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The power of 2

The power of 2

You may call it the King of Multitasking because it has the ability to process multiple threads at once. And while it's not necessarily considered double the fun, or double the processing power, dual-core computing promises to pump up performance - big time.

By placing two CPUs on a single piece of silicon, dual-core processors can boost application performance by anywhere up to 40 per cent, industry proponents claim.

It would affect everything from servers to desktops to laptops, Intel marketing manager, Daniel Anderson, said. "The only thing exempt might be mobile phones."

Sun's national product manager for enterprise servers, Robert Becker, likens it to more lanes being added to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. "Boost the number of compute lanes, get maximum efficiency," he said.

Throw in a traffic cop or a toll gate (better known as the Solaris operating system), which will delegate who goes where and ensures there are no collisions and you have some serious souped up performance, Becker said.

Dual-core technology was a strategy and a product direction, he said. Sun's version, dubbed throughput, lets users do more at a slower clock speed and get more work done via the multitasking functionality.

"In a server environment, you have multiple applications running and multiple jobs happening on the one platform," Becker said. "At the server level, it allows you to do twice as much."

Sun's dual-core server product, UltraSparc IV, has been available for more than 18 months, and the company recently launched dual-core Opteron Sunfire servers.

"While the technology is ideally suited for organisations with large computing workload, it will have broad adoption," Becker said.

Market concerns
A concern across all market segments, in addition to the usual requirement for pumped up performance, were power and cooling challenges.

Dual-core helped in the area of power management by lowering the frequency and the amount of heat, while it also improved price performance in comparison to single core technology, IBM's deep computing specialist, Andrew Brockfield, said.

"It boosts the amount of computer power we can pack into a rack," he said. "The proposition of dual-core means more throughput performance for the same environmental envelope."

The industry couldn't increase the clock speeds, so it needed to put more CPUs into a server, the company's manager for business critical systems, Steve Williamson, said. "In reality, we've had dual-core capability for some time, but the clever thing dual-core is doing now is allowing you to put more CPUs in a box."

So what's out there? With the upcoming launch of Intel's dual-core Itanium processor, dubbed Montecito, and AMD's Opteron processing flavour, the industry is gearing up for the wider usage of dual-core computing technology.

At Intel, platforms using Montecito are expected to deliver up to twice the performance, up to three times the system bandwidth, and more than two-and-a-half- times as much on-die cache as the current generation of Itanium processors.

While boosting performance, Montecito is expected to deliver more than 20 per cent lower power than previous generations of Itanium processors due to new technologies for power management. Meanwhile, Anderson said Xeon-based dual-core servers were slated for launch in the first quarter of next year. He said dual-core was a hot technology that would generate more demand in the future. Intel aimed to have 16 dual-core products in its line-up.

Arch rival AMD is busy offering dual-core technology in two product categories: a server-based Opteron processor - offering single core and dual-core capability - and a dual-core X2 Athlon processor for the desktop, AMD senior engineer, Michael Apthorpe, said.

"The main benefits are the boosted performance," Apthorpe said. "Many applications today are multithreaded. We are now loading up the OS, we have antivirus in the background, spyware, email and printing demands - so we are spawning a lot of software threads that need the added performance."

While analysts predict strong growth for dual-core processors, there will be a challenge convincing customers of the performance benefits.This begs the question: If customers aren't running multithreaded applications, are dual-core systems necessary?

IBM's Brockfield said the confusion around benefits and usage was compounded by the fact there was no standardisation in terms of definitions - things were all over the map.

"The industry and business partners are facing an interesting time and there are some complicating factors including the myriad of names being tossed about," Brockfield said. "It is very confusing. The glossary of terms is ever-increasing."

Given the confusion and technology expansion, Brockfield said partners and customers needed to be aware of the chip vendor moves, along with what the server manufacturers were up to.

And there's plenty happening. Dual-core technology is starting to appear in desktops and servers by major vendors including Sun, HP, IBM and Dell. The battle is also heating up between chip providers Intel and AMD as both companies strive to move their processor lines to multiple processing cores.

HP's Williamson said today's technology boosted application performance by as much as 75 per cent - and that could double in the future once Montecito made an appearance.

Today, dual-core-based HP ProLiant servers substantially increased the performance of business-critical applications such as database, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, mail and messaging, virtual machines and terminal services, without adding systems costs, Williamson said.

The dual-core push
So what does it all mean for partners?

IBM's Brockfield said partners could promote the performance advantages of dual-core over single core, but he cautioned resellers to not get swayed by the hype.

"Some situations may be better suited to the single core environment, so partners need to assess what applications are running and what's needed at the customer site," he said. "Partners need to provide greater solution capability to customers. It might be remiss of a customer to purchase dual-core."

In memory intensive environments, a dual-core purchase may not be the best choice thanks to memory limitations. "It's an important emerging technology, but there's a role for partners to play: they need to know the advantages and limitations," Brockfield said. "So make the right recommendations and don't offer the simplistic view that with dual-core you go twice as fast."

Part of the partner role, he said, involved offering customers server consolidation and platform rationalisation - and dual-core was just one part of the positioning strategy.

"We'll see more server consolidation and virtualisation plays in the marketplace into next year. I don't believe dual-core will be the catalyst of the market, but it will have a role to play," Brockfield said. "Partners need to step back with the server product range and decide what's best."

Top considerations along with cost reduction included the size and scale of performance, along with the architecture of the CPU, he said. AMD's Apthorpe agreed server consolidation and virtualisation were the top benefits in pushing dual-core computing.

Given the boost in performance, Intel's Anderson said dual-core offered partners a nice way to differentiate. "We're bringing products in around virtualisation or we can have security patches happening in the background," he said. "So dual-core is enabling a lot of extra technologies."

While it is an important emerging technology, there were other considerations in the overall server sale, and areas where partners could focus their attention, Intel's Asia-Pacific server specialist, David Jones, said. "There's a requirement for the whole platform to perform, that it gives the benchmarks and suits the function. And that's where the partner can help," he said.

Offering dual-core was an added layer, he said, whereby partners could help customers step up to the next platform level.

Further opportunities
Aligning the infrastructure with dual-core, partners should also take advantage of the popularity with blade servers, as well as the high-end Itanium space and the 64-bit push.

"We see there's a new marketplace for partners," he said. "We want to help drive those 64-bit platforms into the Linux and Windows market space." The technology also enabled a reduction in licensing and maintenance costs, Jones said.

"What dual-core is doing is lowering the cost of licensing," he said. 'Whilst it's not cut in half, it is cheaper than buying individual CPUs."

Dual-core was also generating heat for the channel in power management, HP's Shaw said.

"Dual-core on Itanium does a number of things, which is of interest to the channel," he said. "It offers improved virtualisation and power management, which is a hot topic today."

Essentially, it gave customers added performance without a heat penalty, Shaw said.

Customers also wanted server reliability and availability, Shaw said.

"With Itanium, a new feature includes lock step technology, which gives two CPUs that mirror each other and make sure they don't get out of step," he said.

AMD's Apthorpe said the company was moving towards dual-core computing in a big way, but there was still a role for single core technology.

Certain applications are still suitable to single core, including ones that are typically processor bound, require a high throughput, a higher frequency, but are not necessarily multithreaded.

"The single core has a higher clock frequency than dual-core," Apthorpe said, "and is suitable for environments with specialised applications."

But, the goal, is to broaden out the technology usage and have it take up residence in a broad business sense. "We are trying to touch as many areas as we can," Apthorpe said. So grab a chair and come along for the ride. "Watch where it goes," he said.


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