Server Hardware Trends

In recent years, the biggest trends in server hardware were blade servers, the wait-and-see game on 64-bit Itanium servers and SMP scalability races among Windows servers. This year, though, IT buyers face pressing questions affecting purchases of everyday servers.

Important changes are occurring in commodity servers, right down at the two-way and four-way level where almost all IT departments play. The changes are the rush to 64-bit computing through x86 extensions and the onset of dual-core and multi-core processors.

Managing this double transition is not all that hard, given the industry's efforts to make the technology transitions as seamless as possible. The trick is to time purchases correctly and watch for catches.

64-bit extensions to x86 servers

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect at Microsoft, set the bar high on his company's expectations for 64-bit extensions to x86 systems. "Between now and the end of 2005, we'll go from having very few 64-bit chips out there to virtually 100 percent what AMD ships, and the majority of what Intel ships within less than two years will be 64-bit capable chips," Gates said at the 2004 Windows Hardware Engineering Conference in Seattle.

In the Windows world, software is finally catching up to hardware when it comes to 64-bit extensions to x86 systems. The AMD Opteron processors, with support for 64-bit memory addressing and adherence to the x86 instruction set, have been shipping since 2003. The problem has been that Microsoft initially didn't commit to delivering Windows servers for the chip, then committed only with beta code. The long wait is nearly over. Microsoft promised to ship Windows Server 2003 x64 editions (Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter) by this year's WinHEC at the end of April.

Among major hardware vendors, HP and IBM already support AMD Opteron-based servers. Dell isn't supporting AMD chips at this point, but the company does support the Intel variant, called EM64T, in its PowerEdge servers. Dell also plans to support Intel's EM64T extensions to the Xeon MP processors intended for servers with four or more processors this year.

For Windows-based systems, at least, the time seems ripe to start including x64 systems in new server evaluations.

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Multi-core

Looming behind the 64-bit wave is the advent of multi-core processors. Both Intel and AMD are working hard to put multiple cores on a single processor, effectively turning the silicon that slides into one processor socket on the motherboard into a mini-SMP system. The first round will consist of dual-core processors. Shortly after that, four-core and denser processors should emerge.

AMD expects to ship a first dual-core Opteron processor in mid-2005. IBM is already committed to upgrading its Opteron-based e326 server to support dual-core. Intel is also hot on the trail of multi-core computing with a detailed public roadmap. The chip giant intends to ship its first dual-core server processors in the first quarter of 2006. "Dempsey," a dual-core Intel Xeon processor for dual processor servers, will arrive on a platform called "Bensley." Around the same time will come "Paxville," the first dual-core Xeon MP chip. Intel also has detailed plans for multi-core processors stretching into 2007.

One area to keep an eye on with multi-core processors is enterprise vendor licensing. While Microsoft committed to continuing to license software on a per-socket rather than a per-core basis, IBM and Oracle so far say they will view each core as a separate processor.

Even though multi-core server processing hasn't arrived in the x86 world, it's right around the corner -- certainly close enough to factor into any new system evaluations.

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About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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