Server road map: Beyond quad-core

In 1973, Pete Townshend and The Who wrote and sang about Quadrophenia. And although it took another 34 years for quad-core servers to be counted as a commercial success, by all accounts, multicore server evolution is just beginning.

As the decade draws to a close, x86-based servers will have eight or even 16 cores in a single chip, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. The reason: Adding more cores is the fastest way to performance gains.

Improving memory technology can add 5 percent to 10 percent to system performance, and an updated processor architecture might provide an additional 10 percent boost, Brookwood said. But doubling core density within a processor can instantly add 50 percent or more in performance.

"Compare the level of performance gain we are seeing with quad-core processors to what Intel was able to provide in the move from Pentium 3 to Pentium 4," Brockwood said. Even though the Pentium 4 was a whole new microarchitecture, the move boosted performance by only around 20 percent, he explained. Intel's first quad-core Xeons, by contrast, are promising a 40 percent or greater increase.

There seems to be no point in the foreseeable future at which doubling cores every two years for mainstream servers will reach diminishing returns. Eight-core designs in 2009, 16 cores in 2011 and 32 cores in 2013 will be the route to processor performance enhancement just about indefinitely, most observers agree.

"There is always more work to be done," said Martin Reynolds, a Gartner Inc. analyst. "With more cores, you can get more work done."