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Intel Versus AMD: Servers Straining For Architectural Differentiation

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 micro-architecture. Officially known as the Xeon 5500 series, these marked a highly significant announcement, because this wasn't a minor refresh but a major architectural upgrade.

The line is packed with energy efficiency, hyper-threading, 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, for want of a better phrase, are "adult" processors.

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 re-allocatable 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.

In AMD's case, I'd characterize the Istanbul architectural enhancements as taking some of the stuff AMD pioneered to the next level when it debuted the first multi-core Opterons back in 2005. Of course, this list includes hardware virtualization support and advanced power management. But we're also talking extremely fast processor-to-memory bandwidth, via AMD's Hypertransport link. (The original Istanbul press release is here.)

An interesting angle is that the Istanbul Opertons were pin-compatible with existing motherboards, enabling them to be used as drop-in upgrades.

AMD took its Istanbul strategy to the next level in September, announcing a new server platform spec, code-named Kroner. The salient feature here -- aside from giving a boost to AMD's home-grown core-logic chipset for Istanbul, one of three chipsets available -- is the low-power angle. The ability to hang a low-power tag on one's server is going to be a must-have checklist item to sell into the data center market in 2010.

My overall point here is that both Intel and AMD have given system builders a more advanced processor pallet to work with than ever before. So, while I don't mean to suggest that we're going to see shockingly different servers from each vendor, I do believe this means there will be more differentiation at the margins. Low power or power efficiency, or whatever you want to call it, will come first. (Yes, I know that "efficiency" has a technical meaning, and is commonly misused.) But this differentiation will extend to other areas, notably ease of management.

For example, Dell, in a December press release, touted its offering of an Infrastructure Manager as part of its servers-for-the-data center solution. The manager, wrote Dell, "enables customers to dynamically allocate workloads in minutes by altering server, networking, and storage devices without the need to re-cable, reconfigure, or reload software." The Infrastructure Manager runs on a (Nehalem) Xeon 5500-based PowerEdge M610 Blade.

Then there's Hewlett-Packard, which has taken an interesting approach to the energy-savings play via taking some of its ProLiant servers "skinless." These aren't barebones in the processing department, but rather eschew the traditional rack for a lighter tray carrier. This enables HP to bundle them into something it calls the ExSO, or Extreme Scale-Out, portfolio. It's positioned as a modular data center solution. (I should note that other vendors also have similar, skinless rack-type products.)

In closing, I should note that perhaps I'm conflating vendor differentiation with a broader trend. That would be bundled packages positioned as one-stop data-center solutions, all under the umbrella of competing with, and stealing the center of gravity from, Cisco's Unified Computing System. UCS is a brilliant marketing method of pulling everything under an "easy-to-manage" umbrella. It's almost hard to beat, even with a best-of-breed argument.