Web Informant #371, 21 May 2004:

The new landscape of 64-bit computing

 

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We have seen the first signs of weakness in Intel's hegemony on processors. The 64-bit computing walls have begin to crumble over the past year. Back then, Intel made a mistake when it came out with its new 64-bit Itanium chips that used different instruction sets from the prior x86 line. Ever since then the competition has grown in this space and now system builders have, for the first time in a long while, real choices when it comes to what lies at the heart of their highest-powered machines:

 

-                     AMD's Opteron. This preserves the original x86 instruction set and adds their own extensions in terms of clustering and multi-processor performance enhancements. Sun and HP have begun taking advantage of these extensions in their server lines, and expect more news on this front as these two vendors build new machines based on Opterons.

 

-                     IBM's PowerPC. This continues to just chug along without too much fanfare. I am impressed with the breadth and depth of the PowerPC line. It has a wide range of chips that can handle everything from the highest-density supercomputers to low-end embedded processors.

 

-                     And Intel itself. Earlier this month, they announced a new line of 64-bit processors that basically turns back the clock and re-embraces its older instruction set, hedging its 64-bit bets both ways.

 

Part of Intel's problem is that machines are cheap these days, and that the cost differential for Itanium are pretty steep: $2,000 can buy you a lot of server horsepower, or a terrific desktop with better than average workstation features, for non-Intel 64-bit CPUs. The Itaniums can cost five or more times as much.

 

Look at Apple as a good case in point:  The most successful 64-bit adoption rate has got to be here, with the Apple G5 line of desktops and servers. The innards of these machines are truly a joy to behold and this coming from a guy that likes to keep the covers off his equipment not because they are beautiful to look at but for practical reasons. To make things even more interesting, Apple just came out with their own multiprocessor 64-bit XServe rack-mounted server line that is one of best values for the money for a high-availability, high-horsepower machine.

 

AMD is talking about four-way servers selling for less than $5,000 by next spring this is a price point that Intel will have a hard time matching.

 

Added to the cheap supply of machines is a growing talent pool of white box builders who can assemble some very impressive clusters of machines: see the report I did in April on the Flash Mob assembling their own cluster out of donated equipment. Granted, much of this gear wasn't 64-bit, but  it could be, and several of the world's fastest supercomputers are now routinely assembled from non-Intel gear.

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http://www.top500.org

 

Another issue is the growing trend that the low-volume system builder is doing more innovation than the big guys at Dell, HP, and elsewhere in terms of making better servers. It used to be that white boxes were more popular on desktops than in the server rooms. Those IT shops that were willing to take chances on no-name gear weren't willing to run their servers on them. That has changed, and now it is safe for the white box to come into those raised-floor air conditioned computing palaces. Research at my sister publication CRN shows that the server white box market share has come at the expense of HP, who has lost 7 percentage points on their recent surveys year over year:

http://www.crn.com/sections/hardfacts/hardfact.asp?ArticleID=50215

 

But the biggest issue for Intel is a loss of credibility over Itanium, and a growing dissatisfaction with their domination over this marketplace. As AMD and IBM continue to add new technologies here, they have lost the leading edge mindshare on the high-end. The Opteron architecture is really optimized to handle multi-processing, and IBM's miserly power requirements means that large piles of CPUs won't need to be cooled as much as the others, making it easier to build more complex systems.

 

Will Intel be able to recapture this market? Will Itanium ever be more than a diversion for most system builders? I have my doubts. AMD didn't name its 64-bit chips Hammer for nothing.

 

Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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