Wednesday, December 23, 2009

x86 Rises, Part 4: The emergence of Linux as a viable datacenter OS

Several years ago I drafted a white paper I called "x86 Everywhere". I started it in the fall of 2004, let it sit, and updated it in April 2005. It remains unfinished, but with the release today of Intel's Nehalem processor, I took a look at it again. Here it is:

Three trends could allow what I call "x86 Everywhere" to happen.

The third trend necessary for "x86 Everywhere" is the possibility of the emergence of Linux as a viable datacenter OS.

This seems less likely than high-end x86 servers at this point, but it is certainly possible in several years time, if the efforts of the Datacenter Linux project bear fruit. Windows on 32-bit x86 systems did not penetrate the datacenter, in part because the hardware was not 64-bit, the hardware was not scalable, and customers did not trust Windows with their critical data.

Today, the hardware is 64-bit, AMD Opteron is scalable to eight-sockets today, Intel is pursuing efforts that will likely address the scalability limitations of Xeon, both AMD and Intel are aggressively pursuing multicore chip strategies, and customers trust Linux in places they formerly only trusted UNIX. The result is a very real, industry standard ABI/ISA platform combination that scales from embedded systems, to an inexpensive developer platform (the PC), to midrange enterprise datacenter computers. This could be enough to cause a tipping point, creating a fundamental driver for the Datacenter Linux initiative. Such a change in the primary enterprise compute platform from RISC/UNIX to x86/Linux would likely be highly disruptive to the industry, and would rival the move of commercial computing in the early 1990's from proprietary minicomputers to SMP RISC/UNIX servers. Once established in the datacenter as a viable midrange enterprise platform, like SPARC/Solaris it becomes a straightforward scaling exercise for x86/Linux to establish itself as a high-end platform.

Finally, while not a trend driving large scale x86 adoption, there are other developments to consider. Intel has a virtualization technology, called Vanderpool on desktops and Silvervale on servers, that will help provide partitioning on its systems. AMD has also stated it intends to offer a virtualization layer, called Pacifica. AMD has also stated it plans to improve RAS features of its Opteron, and it is likely Intel will do the same with Xeon, using features it already offers on Itanium. Both of these key technology areas will improve adoption of x86 servers in the enterprise market.

How will this play out?

First, Dell's strategy is to only enter established markets, and to do so with a superior fulfillment system. For markets that are not at that point, Dell has used partnerships, such as its existing partnership with EMC. Dell also partners with Unisys to resell Unisys' 8-way Intel Xeon systems. Therefore the most likely path for Dell is to primarily continue the status quo, assuming four socket x86 systems and below represent the lion's share of the server market. If there is a need to address the greater than eight-socket x86 server market, Dell could expand the Unisys agreement beyond 8-way. If Dell expands into the Opteron market, and needs to address the greater than eight-socket x86 server market, it could partner with Newisys (also an Austin TX company).

IBM already is a player with its Enterprise X Architecture (EXA) for Intel systems. However, IBM has close ties to Newisys (the founder is ex-IBM, and the Horus chipset is based on similar principals to EXA), IBM sold its North Carolina based PC Server manufacturing plants to SCI-Samna, IBM has a strong presence in Austin TX, Newisys' home, and IBM has strategic agreements with AMD around CPU fabrication technology. It is possible IBM could offer the Newisys system in addition to its own EXA systems.

HP is committed to x86 in the four-socket and below space, and is a strong backer of Linux. If the x86/Linux platform gains momentum, it would simultaneously weaken Itanium sales. This would require a strategy change for HP, but such a change would be necessary to remain a viable datacenter systems vendor. To address this, HP could OEM a solution if needed to address a short term requirement. HP did this with NEC's high-end Itanium system before HP adapted its Superdome system to accept Itanium processors. Here the most likely partner would be Newisys, with similar Texas roots to the Compaq, whose former Texas offices server as headquarters for HP's x86 division in the post-merger HP. Longer term, HP's relationship with Intel could produce a high-end x86 system, especially given the common chipset Intel promises for Itanium and Xeon. In fact, HP's “Arches” system, the follow-on to Superdome, could easily accept future Xeon processors, given the common Itanium chipset. HP could also acquire a solution, but the most likely acquisition in this case would be Unisys. A Unisys acquisition would be defensive as well if Unisys had or was considering a significant Dell agreement.

Sun has some of the closest ties to AMD, and Sun has the technology to build large systems. Sun already plans eight-socket Opteron systems. If a significant market for larger than eight socket x86 servers emerges, Sun will have to decide how to address that market. However, balancing the high-end SPARC and x86 business would be a challenge for Sun. If the scalable x86 market shows great promise, the best technical solution for Sun could be an even tighter AMD partnership with technology sharing to allow common systems to be built with either AMD or SPARC processors. The potential for Sun to leverage common technologies such as coherent Hypertransport for SPARC systems as well as Opteron could offer considerable economies of scale. This could make the most sense in the post APL timeframe. A secondary solution, which also offers a near term solution, would be an OEM deal with Newisys. Sun has relationships with SCI-Samna, OEMing Newisys' two socket and four socket Opteron servers as the V20z and V40z, and Sun contracts with SCI-Samna to manufacture low-end UltraSPARC servers. A deal with Newisys around higher-end systems would also server to more strongly establish Sun in the Texas information technology community, clearly one of the top IT centers in the world, and the most important in the x86 business.

AMD's best interests are served if it does not depend on other vendor's chipsets for scalability. Therefore, offering a higher-end Opteron processor with more coherent Hypertransport links allowing greater glueless SMP scalability is the most likely path for AMD.

Similarly, Intel's best interests are served if it can offer everything needed to build a scalable server directly to the distributor. This is the shift needed to move high-end servers into the commodity space, and allow Dell to enter the market with superior logistics.

Based on all of this, a two-phased industry approach is likely. The first being server-vendor based proprietary scalable solutions (such as IBM's EXA, Unisys' CMP, and Newisys' Horus), followed by processor vendor solutions based on in-chip features.

Who is threatened most by x86 Everywhere? One could say Sun, who relies on SPARC systems for the vast majority of its revenues. However if x86 Everywhere happens, SPARC's installed base is still very large, and will not be replaced overnight. The bigger victim is likely IBM, who is trying to repeat Sun's SPARC success with its POWER architecture. In fact, assuming a Sun/AMD partnership could allow Sun to build SPARC or Opteron systems from common technology (i.e., memory controllers and memory subsystems, coherent Hypertransport MP interconnects, and common Hypertransport I/O bridges), SPARC systems could be continued as long as customer demand supported the design of SPARC processors.

The big loser in this appears to be Newisys. SCI-Samna's business model is two-fold: Contract manufacturing and OEM manufacturing. Newisys' low-end systems fit well in the OEM model, and SCI-Samna has had success selling these systems to its OEM partners. However, the high-end Horus systems do not fit the OEM model. Several have tried OEMing datacenter servers, and few have succeeded. In the late 1990s, Unisys OEMed its x86 CMP system to both Dell and Compaq. The Dell OEM lasted only months. Dell realized a 32-way datacenter server did not fit its direct business model. Compaq's deal lasted a little longer, but it too abandoned the OEM arrangement. Other OEM deals include HP's OEMing of NEC's first generation Itanium system, which delivered few sales. The most successful OEM deal of datacenter servers appears to be Bull Worldwide's OEMing of IBM's pSeries servers, but this arrangement created significant channel conflict for IBM in europe, and seems to always be in danger whenever IBM announced a new generation of RISC/UNIX servers. Fujitsu's deal with Siemens is not considered as an OEM deal here because it is really more of a partnership. The Fujitsu-Siemens model is worth considering by Newisys, as it is a successful model of a business relationship between a high-end server manufacturer and a IT solutions provider. The most likely target customers for Newisys' Horus system are IT integrators such as EDS. IBM has a high-end x86 server in its product portfolio. EDS does not. IT integrators can provide the professional services required in selling such systems. Also, because this would be an OEM arrangement, there is the opportunity for greater margins and services to the IT integrator, compared to deals which involve simply reselling an server vendor's product.

x86 Rises, Part 3: x86 Grows in Performance and Scalability

x86 Rises, Part 2: Decreasing Value of Big UNIX

x86 Rises, Part 1: The Background

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