Elite server makers open up for Shanghai Opterons
Upgrading is a snap - selling servers, not so easy
In the ramp ahead of the launch of the new "Shanghai" quad-core Opteron processors for servers and workstations, Advanced Micro Devices lined up some niche players in dense rack and blade servers for commercial data centers and high performance computing clusters often used at government and academic supercomputing centers. But none of the tier one server partners  were at the Shanghai pre-launch event.
Fear not, fans of competition in the x64 server space, the big boys are indeed ready and eager to sell Shanghai Opterons. Then again, if they could sell your grandmother in a metal box to do calculations on the cheap, the major server makers would try to in this recessional IT environment.
Having messed up the "Barcelona" quad-core Opteron launch this year, from the point of view of running a business (as opposed to trying to cram as much features as possible into a chip to leapfrog rival Intel), AMD clearly did the right thing when it revamped its Opteron roadmaps  in May and threw the "Sandtiger" eight-core Opterons on the scrap heap and made Shanghai a quad-core kicker to Barcelona, able to plug into existing AMD platforms but delivering significant thermal and price/performance benefits nonetheless. That shift, which was done because a move to 45 nanometer water-immersion lithography from the 65 nanometer processes used to make the Barcelona quad cores was complex enough without having to get a whole new chip design out the door in a timely fashion. Ditto for the six-core "Instanbul" kickers to Shanghai, due in the second half of 2009, which will also plug into current Rev F 1207-pin server sockets.
If you were expecting a lot of interesting new engineering for the Shanghai Opterons, there won't be a lot as part of today's launch among the tier one server players. But there is some, and a little bit of rejiggering in the product catalogs, too.
As the volume leader in the x64 server space, Hewlett-Packard says that it is plunking Shanghai chips into three blade servers and six rack-mounted machines, its entire Opteron-based server lineup. HP says that it expects "customers to respond well" to the chip and that early benchmark tests have been "impressive" and have boosted the performance per watt considerably on the ProLiant rack and BladeSystem blade server lines; HP is also keen on the hardware assists that Shanghai has for supporting server virtualization.
As for new engineering in servers using Shanghai chips, HP says to keep an eye out for "a new virtualization-tuned rack-based server leveraging Shanghai imminently".
At Sun Microsystems, Arvie Martin, group marketing manager of x64 systems, says that Sun will obviously put the Shanghai chips in its existing blade and rack Opteron servers in the "Galaxy" server lineup, which also sports gear using Intel Xeon processors these days.
"We will begin to start shipping product in the next 30 days and we will be refreshing our product line," says Martin. Sun has not decided on pricing for Galaxy machines using Shanghai chips yet, but Martin says that Sun will probably keep the same or similar prices and give customers the extra performance and better thermals of the Shanghai chips. But, given the state of server sales and profits at Sun, the company might be tempted to charge a little premium for Shanghai machines.
Martin says that Sun will not be rolling out any new platforms just because Shanghai is here, but hinted that Sun is working on future Opteron server designs. This is probably machinery employing AMD's future "Fiorano" platform, which is a homegrown SR5690/SP5100 chipset made by AMD and employing Socket F processors that will initially support Shanghai chips in mid-2009 or so and then the Istanbul six-core kickers towards the end of 2009, if roadmaps are drawn to scale.
IBM is using the Shanghai launch to streamline its Opteron server lineup a bit, according to Alex Yost, vice president of the BladeCenter blade server product line. IBM currently sells a two-socket, single-width Rev F Opteron blade, called the LS22, for its BladeCenter chassis, as well as a four-socket, double-wide blade, called the LS42. The LS22 blade uses the Opteron 2000 series processors, while the LS42 blade uses the more expensive Opteron 8000 series processors but allows for two modified LS22 blades to be snapped together to create a four-socket blade. The two modified LS22 blades have an external HyperTransport link on the system board, and they snap together to create an SMP server with four sockets.
While IBM will support the Shanghai Opterons in the LS22 blades, Yost says that IBM is going to price the LS42 using the Opteron 8000s in such a way that half of an LS42 configuration will cost about the same as the LS22. This will allow customers to expand the SMP capability of their blades in the future without having to throw away their blades and Opteron 2000 processors. The support for Shanghai on the LS22s will only be available on a special bid basis, by the way, so IBM is pretty confident that customers will go for this approach. "Most people will think that for the same price, they should take the Opteron 8000s and have the expansion room," Yost says. This also means IBM only has to manufacture one blade in volume, too, which cuts its own costs.
IBM is also supporting the Shanghai Opterons in its System x 3455, a 1U rack server aimed at HPC workloads that currently sells with Barcelona standard and Special Edition (high clock speed but a lot higher watt) parts, and in its System x 3755, a four-socket server that IBM has priced at a two-socket level when only two Opterons are in the box to give customers cheap headroom without having to do a box swap from a two-socket to four-socket server.
IBM will ship Shanghai chips in the BladeCenter LS22 and LS42 blades by the end of November and will ship it in the System x 3455 and 3755 machines in early 2009. You can buy any of these four machines with Barcelona chips now, but given the benefits of the Shanghai chips, this seems foolish.
Dell, which came late to the Opteron game, will have the Shanghai chip available in three PowerEdge blade servers - the M605, M805, and M905 - four PowerEdge rack servers - the 2790 and SC1435, which are older designs, and the R805 and R905, which are newer designs - and one tower server - the T605.
Sally Stevens, director of PowerEdge marketing, says that Dell has tweaked the BIOS in the PowerEdge machines so the chipsets can make use of the extra HyperTransport link between the Shanghai processors to boost the performance of the boxes by as much as 12 per cent. In Dell's own benchmark tests, in part because of this HyperTransport tweak, the two-socket PowerEdge R805 and four-socket R905 servers are showing as much as a 49 per cent performance increase on virtualization benchmarks, such as VMware's VMark test. On generic tests, Stevens says that on Dell's own lab tests, the Shanghai systems are showing an average of a 37 per cent improvement in performance/watt on a range of benchmarks. All told, AMD says that 25 different systems will be certified to use the Shanghai chips between now and the end of the year. The question now is just how much server budget there will be to splurge on all this horsepower and efficiency. ®