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Transmeta chief talks Crusoe megaservers with The Reg

Disses SMP

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Transmeta founder Dave Ditzel says we can expect servers with hundreds of Crusoe CPUs later this year.

But the dedicated, small form factor boxen won't look anything like today's SMP kit - even though Ditzel and partner in crime Gary Stimac (who pioneered Compaq's server business and has launched a start-up to OEM Transmeta servers) were SMP pioneers.

"I don't believe in SMP anymore," says Ditzel, who helped create the first RISC chips and design the SPARC chip for Sun Microsystems. "I just don't see any reason for people to use it."

Iconoclasm'r'us, we thought. Although SMP has become synonymous with any computer with more than one CPU, it isn't the only game in town, and has only really emerged as the orthodoxy over the past decade. In fact Intel's current server boss Mike Fester - a very tall chap - mused recently to us that he spent happy years in the mid 80s designing asymetric multi-CPU boxes, and how that was the considered the state of the art.

But Ditzel doesn't see the overhead inherent in an SMP design - such as resolving complex cache contentions - as providing much of a practical net benefit.

"We thought people want to scale to hundreds of CPUs, and almost all of the software out there like webservers already scales that way," he told us at the LinuxWorld Expo in New York.

"It's parallel processing but not symmetric shared memory," he says. "And that adds - remember I was at Sun Microsystems for a lot of years - huge cost as well as delay introductions by probably more than a year. So the advantage you get from getting a system into the market a year sooner more than compensates any advantage you get from the SMP programming style"

Instead, the Crusoe servers will be based on simple message passing parallel processing MPP, as used by say Beowulf and other technical, stateless clusters.

Would Transmeta be working on server-specific software variants of Crusoe, we wondered?

"All of the power management features like LongRun we've designed for mobile computers automatically works in servers. Whereas all the server chips out there never even think about going into power saving mode because that was never a consideration. But now with this energy crisis, all these chips aren't equipped."

Crisis? What crisis? Although California, thanks to the libertarian-inspired disaster of dereguglating its energy market, has landed itself with rolling power cuts, the budget office doesn't see any consequential impact on the rest of the US. So Transmeta is hoping that fuel bills suddenly become a decisive factor in purchasing servers. More important, we teased, than performance?

"There is a penalty... but I think we've got the trade off the other server guys never thought of," he reckons.

He's not the only hoping that Crusoe in servers is more than a wild punt. While Intel does a formidable job of providing bog standard 2CPU racks, Transmeta's server OEMs are thinking more of server farm appliances. According to Linuxgram, which was the first to pick up on Stimac's RLX venture, talk is of cramming as many as 24 CPUs onto a 3U rack, and throwing in management software and middleware too.

That density of performance should be a contender, even with Crusoe's reputation for hickey [shouldn't that be 'carefully managed'] multi-tasking performance.

And in his brief presentation, Ditzel compared Crusoe to Itanic: one Itanic running at 100w will be faster than a 1w Crusoe... (Actually, it's closer to 800w, or at least that's the power supply specified for two-way systems running the ludicrous Intel chip, but we digress.) But two 1w Crusoes can match the performance, in the same density, and so on, and so on...

Stimac's RLX Technologies has announced a "Razor" server, but won't say exactly what it is, although it will run Windows 2000 and Linux, according to the statement posted January 16th on the company's website. The blurb promises to "recast the dynamics of the server marketplace", which is some claim to live up to, even by the hyperbolic standards of this business.

And in the background lurks AMD, fancifully mentioned as a Transmeta predator. So far, the companies have confirmed that they're working together, with informed speculation suggesting emulation on AMD's Sledgehammer s the most likely field.

But there are more tantalising areas, too. Remember folks with so much of Crusoe being software, rather than, hardware-based, a chip OEM can implement a whnumber of goodies in the chip. You're thinking all the bits that massively parallel servers need, right? Integrated into small purpose built appliances, for routing, caching or web serving, right? You'd be silly not to be, and we'll see if RLX and Cruosoe's other OEMs can make it sing before too long. ®

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