Multi-Core Processors Coming of Age

While dual-core processors made a big splash in the chip market last year, industry observers say multi-core efforts are what to watch these days.
Posted February 9, 2006

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

While dual-core processors made a big splash in the chip market last year, industry observers say multi-core efforts are well on their way.

''Enterprises have no real choice about adopting dual-core any more than they had about adopting higher frequencies in the past,'' says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., an IT analyst firm based in Nashua, N.H. ''The cut over has started and will happen rapidly.''

But dual core is really only the beginning.

Intel and AMD already are talking about quad-core architectures being due within a year or so. And outside of the x86 arena, dual-core is old hat. IBM, for example, introduced dual-core POWER processors in 2001. Similarly, Sun Microsystems has long made dual-core SPARC chips, and recently released the Sun UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor with eight cores.

Intel and AMD, then, have a lot of catching up to do. But their recent dual-core efforts and ambitious timelines for multi-core products mean the enterprise server processor architecture is about to undergo a radical shift.

''Enterprises must either adopt multi core or stick with slower chips,'' says Haff.

The Dual-Core Sprint

In many ways, dual-core x86 technology represents the end of the battle to see which chip maker could raise clock-frequency the fastest. This sprint saw the market move from 500 MHz chips to 3 GHz-plus models within a few years.

Unfortunately, CPU power consumption increased alarmingly as chip designers pushed the envelope. To speed up transistor performance to attain a clock frequency boost of 20 percent, for example, it might require as much as a 50 percent boost in power.

Dual-core designs have made great headway in reversing this trend with a less-is-more approach. By the simple expedient of lowering the frequency of each core by 20 percent, both cores use about the same amount of power as a single-core chip at the higher frequency. This adds up to a performance boost of 1.7 over single-core designs for the same amount of power consumption.

''Henceforth, those who need more performance must exploit parallelism -- multiple processors, often on a single silicon die,'' says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, a San Jose, Calif.-based analyst firm specializing in the semi-conductor market. ''AMD is winning the dual-core server race.''

Some would characterize AMD's start as more like having lapped Intel than having taken an early lead. The company has kept up a barrage of dual-core announcements since the spring and offers an array of products. The AMD Opteron dual-core processor is offered in the 100 series (1-way), the 200 series (up to 2-way) and the 800 series (up to 8-way). It has four chips available for each category. These range from 1.8 GHz to 2.4 GHz.

The latest to the hit the market are the x80 chips run at 2.4 GHz. The dual-core AMD Opteron processor Model 880, for example, is an eight-way, 16-core chip, while the Model 280 is a two-way, four-core version, and the Model 180 is available for one-processor, two-core servers and workstations.

AMD positions the technology in terms of 'more bang for your buck' by providing far more power for less cooling. According to AMD, this represents a potential annual savings of $50,000 for a datacenter with 500 two-way systems, compared to using Intel-based non-dual-core alternatives. The company promotes its processors as giving significant performance gains while operating in the same power and cooling infrastructure as single-core processors. As a result, fewer servers can do the job of many, helping to lower operating costs.

This effect is then multiplied by AMD PowerNow technology that enables servers and workstations to power down processors based on usage. AMD spokespeople say this can reduce CPU power consumption by 75 percent during idle time, further decreasing the strain on datacenter cooling and ventilation systems.

Not surprisingly, the big server OEMs are getting behind dual-core.

HP added these new chips to its ProLiant servers and workstations. The AMD Model 880 processor, for example, is now built into the four-processor/eight-core HP ProLiant DL 585 and BL45p servers, while the AMD Model 280 chip is part of the two-processor/four-core ProLiant DL385, DL145, G2, BL25p and BL35p. Sun Microsystems, too, was fast to adopt AMD dual core. One-, two- and four-way dual-core Sun Fire servers have already been released.

AMD reports that more than half the Opteron chips it ships are now dual core. Within a year, the company expects that percentage to be close to 100 percent.

Who is buying?

Enterprises appear to be using dual-core in general IT infrastructure servers, as well as in databases, Cirix clients, and in high-performance computing (HPC). Corporate IT systems currently optimized for symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) multi-threaded applications, in particular, should see big performance leaps by using multi-core processors.

Penn State University's research computing department, for example, is using SunFire dual-core V40z servers in a compute cluster to run various engineering, mathematical, and scientific calculations. These four-way, eight-core 2.2 GHz machines have 32 GB of memory.

''Dual-core technology is one of the most significant advances of the past five years,'' says Vijay Agarwala, director of HPC and visualization at Penn State University. ''Sun's new dual-core Opteron systems allow the university to almost double its processing core capacity while maintaining the same heat and real-estate footprint.''

Another fan of dual core is Mark Kapczynski, CEO of MESoft, Inc., a media technology company based in Burbank, Calif. MESoft uses AMD Opteron to capture, edit, and render TV and movies. The company is constantly looking for the fastest servers and processors in order to match or better the quality of programming available with analog video technologies.

MESoft initially deployed Intel Xeon quad processors about three years ago. Due to poor performance, it switched to AMD Opteron quads and noticed a dramatic improvement, says Kapczynski. The company recently added four dual-core machines.

''We see most throughput advance with dual-core on our capture and encoding boxes that take in massive amounts of High-Definition digital data at a rate of 1.5 Gb per second,'' says Kapczynski. ''We are now getting equal or better performance with two dual-core Opterons compared to our older Opteron 4-way processors.''

Who is the Turtle?

Intel has suffered a heavy beating in the media due to its sluggish start with dual-core server processors. But it would be foolish to discount the companys ability to narrow the gap. It accomplished exactly that, after all, with 64-bit technology. AMD raced ahead at the start and gained a lead of more than a year. Yet within six months of the launch of 64-bit Xeon processors, Intel had sold three times as many x86 64-bit processors as AMD.

Intel recently began to release some products to market starting with a dual-core Pentium D processor-based platform for entry-level one-processor servers. This was followed in the past few weeks with the release of dual-core Xeon chips. The dual-core Intel Xeon processor 7000 sequence, formerly named Paxville MP, for example, offers speeds of up to 3.0 GHz and a 667 MHz dual independent system bus for servers with four or more processors.

Next will come dual-core Itanium processors and further up the line, a quad-core processor, codenamed Tigerton, is said to be released sometime in 2007. In total, 15 multi-core projects are underway. The company has set the goal of 85 percent of its server processors being dual-core capable by the end of this year.

Some analysts characterize the dual-core race as being a match between the nimble AMD versus a ponderous and failing Intel. Others, however, see it as another example of the turtle and the hare -- AMD races ahead, while Intel plods on and eventually wins.

''Intel is playing catchup with dual-core AMD Opteron,'' says Haff. ''But Intel is back on track strategically and now it's a matter of which company can execute best over the next couple of years.''

And whoever wins, it seems certain that within a year or less, the market will have transitioned almost totally to dual-core technology.

''Every new system we buy will be dual core,'' says Kapczynski. ''It's a win whatever way you look at it -- speed, performance, footprint, overall cost and heat.''

Sun Moves Beyond

Both AMD and Intel are far behind Sun in multi-core technology.

Brookwood talks about UltraSPARC's eight-cores as being far in advance of its x86 rivals. In terms of wattage alone, Sun consumes 70 watts compared to 90 for AMD and 120 to 150 for Intel. Furthermore, its performance lead also is significant.

''The Sun UltraSPARC T1 performs at a level of four or five Dual Core Opteron for some workloads,'' says Brookwood.

That's why Intel and AMD both have announced the arrival of quad-core products over the next year or two. According to Brookwood, AMD seems on course to bring a quad-core Opteron to market by the end of this year or early in 2007. Intel is lagging behind, though, and may struggle to release a quad-core Xeon during the course of next year.

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