For the better part of a decade, Intel has been nibbling and gnawing away at the Unix server market that RISC-based servers owned – lock, stock, and SAN – just 15 years ago.
Back in the mid-1990s, the Unix business was thriving. Sun was the big shot with its SPARC-based servers running Solaris; IBM was on its tail with AIX running on POWER-based servers; HP was in the mix with HP-UX running on PA-RISC; and SGI was the darling of Hollywood after its IRIX-based MIPS machines brought Jurassic Park to life.
Today, Oracle owns what's left of Sun, a one-time $18 billion-a-year company. SGI exists in name only, after Rackable bought what was left of it and assumed its name. Google now occupies SGI's former Mountain View offices. Big iron is less than 10% of IBM's business total, and much of that is x86 servers; the PA-RISC chip has been reincarnated as the Itanium.
And Intel? It just kept chugging along, improving on the Xeon with each generation. As Linux vendors made Linux increasingly viable on the server (aided in part by IBM, SGI, and Sun, who bowed to the inevitable a decade ago), Linux-based Xeon servers took more and more share away from the Big Four Unix vendors. All four tried to make the switch to Xeon/Linux servers, with varying degrees of success.
Today, IDC puts Xeon-based Linux at about 90% of the *nix server market. The last 10% is for Oracle, HP and IBM, SGI's IRIX having long since gone extinct.
RISC machines have retreated to the highest ground of computing, the five 9s domain (99.99999% uptime) of mission-critical computing, and Xeon has thus far been unable to follow. With its latest Xeon, though, it looks like Intel believes it can enter into the RISC market.
Taking a RISC
The Xeon E7 line is the successor to the 7500, introduced last year. Developed under the codename “Westmere-EX,” it's a 10-core chip with HyperThreading, so it can power through 20 threads at a time. Whereas the Xeon 5x00 line, the staple of the Xeon family, targets dual- and four-socket systems, the E7 is aimed at 8-socket and more. SGI and Cray, for example, have 256-socket machines.
The Xeon 7500, a.k.a. Nehalem-EX, was a huge leap over the prior generation, as much as three times faster. That's because it was completely re-architected from the ground up. The E7 is an incremental change over the –EX, but still delivers anywhere from 20% to 42% more performance over the -EX.
With the launch of the E7 earlier this year, it seemed Intel was finally ready to make its final push, calling out RISC by name. “The days of IT organizations being forced to deploy expensive, closed RISC architectures for mission-critical applications are nearing an end,” said Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, in a statement announcing the E7 line.
Bold words. Can the E7 really dethrone UltraSparc/Power/PA-RISC and, of course, Intel's own Itanium processors? Intel thinks so.
“From our perspective, the Power/Sparc/mainframe market still represents a $15 billion dollar server spend, so whether you choose to deploy a Xeon or Itanium, we have solutions to address this market. Will Xeon pull some sales from it? Sure, but at the same time we're viewing this as having a portfolio to go after the Power, Sparc, and mainframe markets,” said Patrick Buddenbaum, mission critical marketing director at Intel.
The Xeon and Itanium share a common chipset and common memory buffer, and their RAS (reliability/availability/scalability) capabilities are almost the same. So it really is up to the OEM in terms of system implementation and what they choose to build around it, said Buddenbaum.
"I do think it's going to be a progression over time where we will see bigger, more robust systems coming out," he said.
But HP is going slowly in that regard. It has its Xeon line in the ProLiant family that run Linux and Windows Server; it also has two lines of mission-critical Itanium-based Integrity servers, the Non-Stop and the Superdome, which run HP-UX, HP's very mature Unix OS. A lot of what starts in the Integrity servers migrates down, notes Jim Lofink, cross-portfolio product marketing manager for HP Integrity.
"A lot of Itanium functionality is cascading down to Xeon. So instead of being completely different environments, we look at Itanium being a more high-end environment to Xeon rather than being from two different families," he said.
"If you look at Integrity products and ProLiant Xeons, a lot of functionality cascades from Itanium down to Xeon. The Prima architecture on ProLiants started on Itanium side. Instance management capabilities started on Integrity side," said Lofink.
More Than Chips
It really does fall to big iron vendors like HP to bring their infrastructure to the E7, because at the chip level, for all intents and purposes, "it's pretty much equivalent [to Itanium]," said Buddenbaum.
"If you run through every RAS feature, Itanium may have a few more capabilities. But from an end-user perspective, the difference would not be very noticeable. So much of that ties back to OEM implementation and how they bring their platform to market," he said.
Jed Scaramella, research manager for servers at IDC, agrees. "You still do have to design your system around the CPU. There's still the management and the redundancy to be built around it. There is the operating system. That's a big part of it. People still consider Unix on RISC a more stable environment than Linux on x86," he said.
IDC has noted that RISC sales have increased for the last two quarters while x86 is trailing off slightly. Scaramella noted that when the economy began showing signs of recovery, x86 was first to pick up steam because they tend to be cheaper and an easier deployment choice.
RISC systems tend to be bigger, scale-out systems, often used in consolidation of older hardware. It takes longer to approve the purchase of a million dollar server than a $3,000 two-socket Xeon server, Scaramella explained. So cheaper, smaller x86 servers were the first to start selling.
Most Unix-based RISC systems deployed today are sold to existing customers, but there are occasional new customer wins here and there. By and large, though, these systems are being used in 10-to-1 consolidations where old systems are retired and virtualized systems deployed.
So Scaramella doesn't expect Xeon, even the E7, will displace RISC any time soon. "These products are slow-moving because [IT organizations] are risk-averse. They aren't going to move their systems over any time soon. They like to keep their workloads siloed," he said.
Slowly But Surely
But Lofink thinks customers are warming, slightly, to non-RISC environments. "While there are more and more customers who want to put more mission-critical needs in Xeon environment, there are still customers who for business purposes cannot support mission-critical needs in an x86 environment," he said.
"There are some things on hardware beyond the chip for mission-critical computing," added Lofink. "The Superdome crossbar fabric provides additional hardware resiliency not available on our Xeon servers. Our Non-Stops have triple redundancy so you never go down. Integrity is one step below that. The next level down there is Xeon, with good enough availability."
But would HP make those Non-Stop hardware features and HP-UX available for the Xeon E7? Not likely. "We have no plans for an HP-UX port. The rest depends on market needs. Would our customers want HP-UX on a Xeon or would they want to go to Windows? We have customers who go both ways. I can't say anything either way," he said.
But today, the full high-reliability ecosystem isn’t there, he added, and if the world is going in the x86 direction, a Xeon environment has to have the full ecosystem to support all mission-critical needs.
It's not just reliability; it's also reporting. The ability to go back and debug crashes by getting memory dumps is easy on a Unix or mainframe system, less so on a Linux system. "If there is a crash you get dumps on everything [on Unix]. Will those come to x86 in time? Yes, but it's not there today," said Lofink.
Buddenbaum said that despite whatever claims Oracle has made about the end of the Itanium, Intel is committed to the chip. "We remain firmly committed to the Itanium architecture and are pleased OEMs are bringing new solutions to the market," he said. "At the high-end RISC market, we spend a lot of time working with the ISV community. I spend my time equally between OEMs and the ISV community, making sure we have platforms ready and making sure they are all focusing their innovation on Xeon and Itanium."
Scaramella believes servers are becoming more specialized and general purpose servers are going away. "They put a lot of design into these systems. We call them general purpose but the servers are becoming less general. There has been some specialization creeping into the market for some time, whether it's scale out, SMB, mission-critical or high-performance. General purpose is a misnomer now," he said.
And RISC is here to stay, he adds. "We think x86 will creep up a little by little but it won't gain by leaps and bounds – and non-x86 won't go away for a long time."