Extending x86

Von Chee Sing

Servers based on x86 processors are often perceived as PCs dressed up in bigger and fancier boxes. But Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Intel Corp. have breathed new life into what were distinctly average-looking servers with a limited future.

AMD last year introduced 64-bit extensions to its Opteron chip, while Intel launched the 64-bit version of its Xeon chip, called Nocona, in July this year.

The hope of vendors like AMD is the advent of 64-bit x86 processors will go a long way toward eroding a primary advantage of 64-bit reduced instruction set computing (RISC) systems based on chips such as Sun?s UltraSparc and IBM?s Power processor.

Because 64-bit applications can process numbers with twice as many binary digits as their 32-bit counterparts, they can have the capacity to address a larger range of system memory. A 32-bit system can?t address more than 4G bytes of memory at a time. With 64-bit systems, this limit theoretically jumps to 16 billion gigabytes.

Many of the new 64-bit x86 servers deliver up to 16G bytes of addressable memory which is nowhere near the limit but is still far more than 32-bit systems. While this change might not have any impact on an application like Microsoft Word, it will have a big effect on any application that needs to store large amounts of data in memory.

?Customers need to think about which applications are memory-intensive and which ones can get the most bang for the buck by moving to a 64-bit operating system,? said Stuart McRae, U.S.-based manager of IBM Corp.?s xSeries servers. ?They?re going to get the hardware functionality whether they want it or not.?

Extended ability

With their 64-bit x86 extensions, AMD and Intel have created processors that are 64-bit capable yet can also run all of today?s 32-bit PC software out of the box. Because the additional 64-bit extensions -- called AMD64 by AMD and Extended Memory 64 Technology by Intel -- do not slow the performance of 32-bit software, customers should have nothing to lose by adopting the new processors.

Still, the 64-bit software that will run on these chips is only beginning to emerge. Microsoft recently pushed back the release of a production version of Windows for 64-bit extensions until 2005, and vendors see little point in delivering Windows applications before the operating system is ready.

For Linux users, 64-bit operating system support is already available from Red Hat and Novell?s SuSE Linux. But even on Linux, application support is still in the early stages.

AMD is optimistic that its 64-bit extensions to x86 chips will help it get recognition and a foothold in the enterprise space. While its efforts to tackle Intel?s dominance in the PC market and low-end server market have borne significant results, its aim is set higher with Opteron.

Most firms have typically used x86 systems at the front-end or the network edge but Thomas Tong, senior product marketing manager, AMD China, believes the new 64-bit offerings can be used in the back-end of enterprises as well as the usual front-end applications. ?So instead of simply file-and-print, Web server or security functions, we see this (64-bit Opteron) being more suitable for enterprise back-end (use) including database and data-mining applications,? Tong noted.

The view at AMD is that this is a natural evolution of server technology, with users of 32-bit technology simply wanting more speed, more power and more memory.

As more applications at the front-end become 64-bit enabled, AMD expects more 64-bit systems to be deployed there. This provides platform consistency from the existing 64-bit platforms running at the back-end right through to the front-end, noted Tong.

Market diversity

While most vendors would agree that this migration to 64-bit technology is a natural step, there is some disagreement on whether the 64-bit x86 servers are real contenders in the existing high-end 64-bit server space -- currently the domain of IBM mainframes and RISC-based systems.

Intel?s late entry into the 64-bit x86 chip market indicates its uncertainty about the market for such a processor, and while it now acknowledges a need for this server type, it is playing down the likely significance in the short term.

?Our transition of x86 to support 64-bit is driven more by recognition of some parts of the server market now needing 64-bit technology that may not have existed before,? said Philip Wee, marketing manager for enterprise business development at Intel Asia Pacific. ?But not so much for the full blown 64-bit requirements of users currently on mainframes or high-end RISC systems,? he stated.

Businesses that are seemingly ripe for the new servers are typically from the biotech, pharmaceutical, oil and gas and automobile industries. Firms that would have large research operations that now require more number-crunching power for complex calculations and processing of large data sets.

Moving from 32-bit to 64-bit allows you to access more memory directly, and applications with high and complex calculations will benefit from that feature, noted Wee. However the demand for this server type is likely to be ?niche and quite industry-specific for the time being,? he added. ?In the broader market and core infrastructure world, we expect 32-bit to stay for some time -- it doesn?t yet pay for many to migrate.?

In terms of expectations for 64-bit computing, right now the majority of 64-bit potential is at the back-end operations of large firms with mainframes and RISC servers. ?Database servers with a need for a single image of data -- this is where servers need 64-bit scale and ability to do many transactions,? said Wee.

At Hewlett-Packard Co., the view is similar in that while the 64-bit extension to x86 is a natural progression, it really addresses the limitations of existing 32-bit systems. ?Opteron and Nocona are helping customers look for that extra performance on front-end type and non-core applications, not necessarily the high-end business critical UNIX systems,? said Kris Chan, director of value products business, customer solutions group at HP Hong Kong. ?These are still two different markets.?

Vested interests

It is not surprising to hear this message from both HP and Intel as they both have long touted their 64-bit Itanium processor-based systems as contenders in the mainframe and RISC market space.

?We feel Itanium is the natural alternative for RISC servers and high-end UNIX platforms,? Chan noted, ?but x86 is not quite aimed at that same market.?

?For us, Itanium is the platform that existing 64-bit users might consider instead of RISC -- it is designed much more for 64-bit tasks and the high performing back-end operations,? said Chan?s HP colleague, Franklin Sze, director, industry standard servers, technology solutions group. ?x86 is good for Windows and Linux, both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, but not so suited to UNIX,? Sze added. HP has made it clear it has no current plans to put its own UNIX offering, HP-UX, onto the new x86 processors.

Intel?s Wee acknowledged that of course there will be some crossover as the range of servers and customer requirements is now so diverse. ?It?s the classic 80-20 rule, it will make sense for some to switch and not so for many others,? he said. ?There is no clear definite rule.?

He also confirmed the belief that the new x86 offerings are not really targeted at RISC servers as such, but more for 32-bit users looking to upgrade and raise performance.

Sun hedges bets

In an intriguing development, traditional RISC-based server player Sun Microsystems Inc., has indicated it will port its Solaris OS over to the new x86 processors.

The move is aimed at stemming the flow of users who are switching from Solaris to Linux running on cheaper industry standard servers based on Intel and AMD chips compared to Sun?s own RISC-based UltraSparc chips.

The scheme has been dismissed by some in the industry as one borne of desperation. ?I feel this move will definitely fail, because that the majority of Solaris applications are based on UltraSparc chips and not x86 chipsets,? said Chan at HP. ?And many of the x86 servers (32-bit) that Sun has sold so far have been for Linux and not Solaris.?

He added that even AMD have noted that there is a big hole for 64 applications for Solaris on x86, ?so I don?t think that (Solaris on x86) is a very attractive proposition to customers.?

Meanwhile, AMD hold to their belief that the new x86 chips can have a say in the enterprise back-end. ?We do have several big wins with US financial institutions who have used Opterons to run database, data-mining and transaction monitoring,? said Tong. However he declined to name the institutions concerned, citing confidentiality.

While application support for 64-bit chips is still a concern for current 32-bit users, ?there?s no reason why every application needs to support 64-bit computing,? Tong added.

Vendors agree that many applications will not need to and will not be able to make use of 64 bit computing yet. While in future most developers will support 64-bit, ?but right now 32-bit applications will still be prevalent,? said Wee.