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The SMP revival

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Sun sees the average cost of an SMP system coming down as a result of this technology; but, of course, expects to sell more systems as customers make use of the power boost.

"You can imagine taking a large machine that can handle 72 software threads today, multiplying that by 10 and offering it in a single box to compute hungry customers," said Marc Tremblay**, a Sun Fellow and chief architect. "Or you can see a new class of customers getting a four-chip Niagara system that is essentially a 32-way SMP at a low cost."

"We are convinced that there is a huge appetite for compute cycles out there."

IBM was the first major vendor to roll out a dual-core high-end chip in the form of Power4 and has gone with a dual-core design again with Power5. The company has been very quite about what Power6 might look like, but you can see IBM making similar moves to its rivals.

With Power5, IBM benefitted from an improved manufacturing process that should make low-end and midrange servers based on the chip more affordable. In addition, IBM has managed to put an offshoot of Power - the PowerPC 970 or Apple's G5 chip - into low-end blade servers. By 2007, IBM should push these trends with Power6, although there is some speculation from industry insiders that IBM will have much less radical designs than its rivals. Although, funny as it sounds, the "Cell" chip being designed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba for entertainment consoles looks interesting.

Size kind of matters

As you'll see in the software part of this story, some vendors expect to see more dramatic gains out of these mini-SMP systems than others. There are a host of issues around partitioning, management and software licensing that control just how profound of a leap multicore processors may be.

Itanium user HP, for example, appreciates some of the benefits coming with the new chip technology but does not think a massive rebirth of the SMP is under way.

"There are some workloads out there that like and will continue to like to have a really powerful processor core for each thread," said Brian Cox, worldwide product manager for HP servers. "If you start stacking too many processor cores going through single sockets, choke points could pop up.

"So, there is going to be room for single core and dual-core chips for quite some time. We have to be careful about (multicore designs), as vendors, to make sure it's not technology for technology's sake but that this will benefit the customers."

It's no surprise to see chip-makers such as Intel and Sun be a bit more bullish about the technology. If nothing else, the engineers at these respective companies are excited to try their hands at something new, and it shows.

But, while radical multicore designs might not cause a revolution, they will create a vast new set of choices for customers.

Customers should more or less be able to "scale-out" within a single system. Instead of stacking 8 blade servers in a rack, a customer could consider each processor core as a single blade. Those willing to pick the multicore route over racks of thin servers could expect to have serious management and data center size benefits. Forget server sprawl when a a 42U rack can hold 300 64-bit processor cores.

And, as the software story will show, vendors at ease in the SMP world - Sun, HP and IBM - could have massive advantages over a vendor such as Dell in this model. Most of the tools and software that take advantage of the SMP-on-a-chip concept are tied to various versions of Unix. But by 2007 that could well change.

All of this means that shorter, squatter servers based on multicore chips will obliterate the line between scaling out and scaling up. Does this mean "shared everything" boxes will be hip again? It looks that way. ®

Bootnotes

*It's hard to say exactly how this will play out given the recent changes to Intel's Xeon roadmap, but at present dual-core and multicore Itaniums are set to arrive ahead of their Xeon counterparts

**Are chip engineers supposed to look like this?

Related stories

Sun and Fujitsu to SPARC together
Intel says Adios to Tejas and Jayhawk chips
Intel's Whitefield goes Banias in 2006
The point of Itanium keeps floating with new chips

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