• 09/07/2011
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AMD Bulldozer Rolls Into View

New chips could flatten Intel in shops with multicore workloads.
We expect to see Advanced Micro Devices' new generation of "Bulldozer" processors shipping in major OEM vendor configurations very soon. This makes me excited for a few reasons, but the two most compelling advantages are performance and list price. For example, the Bulldozer chips will ship in at least five models, three 12-core and two eight-core. List price on the 12-core, 1.8-GHz Opteron 6166 HE is only $873.

These processors may well put AMD right back in the game for workloads that scale well with multiple cores.

We do see Intel continuing to dominate in scenarios where the most power per single core is required, but AMD's strategy is the better long-term bet. It's much more efficient from a thermal and power standpoint to have more, less-powerful cores vs. a few powerful ones. Maybe Intel can squeeze the most performance out of a single core, but it comes at a cost in power consumption and heat.

So what does all this have to do with virtualization? Well, a big part of the modern hypervisor's job is to arbitrate access to root-level resources. Improved control over resources is what allows us to use these huge, multicore servers effectively, because without a hypervisor, it would be impossible to distribute the workload. Because of this, hypervisors and high core counts have always gone hand in hand.

Couple this with modern application design tenets that incorporate multithreading into code from the ground up, and you have a recipe for serious power in a very efficient, inexpensive package. I know that as a virtualization engineer, for most workloads, I’d rather have 12 1.8-GHz cores than six 3.6-GHz ones because individual cores are more easily allocated to workloads without hypervisor interference in processor scheduling. The higher number of cores promotes a higher virtual machine density per host at a lower power cost.

Remember too that if some workloads require the higher individual core speed of the 12-core, 2.5-GHz Opteron 6180 SE, there’s no reason you can’t set VM rules that keep those specific VMs on the one or two servers that use the more powerful, and more expensive, single chips while running the rest of the load on less-expensive hardware.

So where will we see the Bulldozer chips make the biggest impact? I’m betting on the commodity hardware market. For big Internet cloud-based virtualization firms and outsourcers with high processing requirements, these new Opterons are a godsend. At around half the price of the latest Intel processors for about the same raw gigahertz, going from six to 12 cores in distributed workload environments like Hadoop clusters is an absolute no-brainer.

But what we’re really talking about here is the future. Intel’s hardware model of fewer, faster cores flies in the face of basic tenets for conservation of energy and thermodynamics. The only obstacle to enterprises using the AMD Bulldozer is making sure that workloads are multicore-efficient. Of course, if your major line-of-business software does not support multithreading, you have other problems that even the new Opterons are not going to fix. But that's another column.

Hypervisor Derby: Microsoft and Citrix are closing the gap with VMware. Before you roll out the latest edition of vSphere, reconsider your virtualization platform. Also in the new, all-digital issue of Network Computing: Into every public cloud, a little downtime must fall. We outline the steps to maximize availability and keep you from getting soaked by outages. (Free with registration.)

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