Wednesday, October 27, 2021

A Chip War of EPIC Proportions

Once, RISC-based server machines were faster and more powerful. But now
many IT buyers now are abandoning the once-popular UNIX architecture because
of their proprietary nature and instead opting for advanced x86
architectures, which are starting to match UNIX in computing power but are
cheaper to maintain.

But instead of a two-horse race, the development of Intel’s EPIC-based
Itanium family and AMD’s CISC-style Opteron is giving server customers more
choices and forcing vendors to take cutthroat measures.

Tainted Love

It was back in the mid-1980s, when a number of computer manufacturers
such as Sun Microsystems , IBM Digital
Computer’s Alpha (now owned by Hewlett-Packard) decided to build CPUs
capable of executing only a very limited set of instructions, referred to as
a reduced instruction set computer (RISC). Prior to that, computer makers
built increasingly complex chips that had ever-larger sets of instructions,
commonly known as a CISC.

It was during this time that Intel continued to
improve its x86 line of chips, which had been primarily made for desktop
PCs, and begin to win much of the mid-range market with its Xeon processors.
Recently, AMD has challenged that thinking with its 64-bit
Opteron. That processor, launched in April, is backwards compatible with
32-bit based systems and is considered more of a CISC than a
RISC chip.

To some extent, some say the argument between architectures is becoming
moot because each of the processor’s implementations is becoming more and
more alike. For example, many of today’s RISC chips support as many
instructions as yesterday’s CISC chips. And today’s x86 chips use many
techniques formerly associated with RISC chips.

All of which has analysts wondering which technology will be the choice
of customers once IT spending returns in full.

“The difference is that the x86 architecture evolved, while RISC chips
never got into the mainstream market,” InStat/MDR analyst Kevin Krewell told
internetnews.com. “With Intel you get a new server architecture
design every two years with a speed difference. In the server business,
things don’t move that fast. Legacy is a wonderful thing, however. IT guys
don’t like ripping out systems that work.”

Alpha Dog

Keeping legacy around and keeping what is working is a concept that has
played well through the tough times but does not sell well with companies
trying to sell chips or servers. Hence, HP’s decision to
team up with Intel to build a completely new chip in the Itanium.

“When we went down the EPIC path to look at the past 20 years in
computing be it the CISC or RISC product lines and decided to build a better
architecture,” Intel Itanium product line manager Mike Graf said. “We think
we have a better mouse trap.”

Based on HP’s Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) design,
the chip looks at instruction level parallelism to tackle separate problems
at the same time.

Despite being on the market for two years, Itanium migration has been
slow.

“The companies that are mostly on Itanium are HP SGI and to some extent
Unisys,” said Krewell. “It has x86 compatibility, but it needs new software
and software has been very slow coming. In the midst of a recession, it was
hard to migrate to a new spending.”

Krewell says more Itanium adoption will probably kick in with the release
of low-voltage versions of the chips currently codenamed Madison and
Deerfield. Due out this year, the processors are similar to current McKinley
structures but shrunk down in size and running cooler. The suggestion is
that the chip could find its way into blades or thin clients, which had
previously been a barrier.

There is also some speculation into how many Itanium chips have been
sold. Intel gave away many of its chips to its partners and the company has
a policy not to release specific numbers about how many chips it sells.

Sources at the Inquirer estimate Intel has sold 370 Itaniums in 2001,
2700 in 2002 and expects to sell 7,000 of the chips by the end of this year.

The chip has made some rumblings in classic RISC circles. Most notably a
recent TPC-C benchmark that put HP’s Superdome running Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Data Center Edition over Itanium 2 chips.
The combination upset IBM’s rule with its AIX/RISC/DB2 stack.

Down, But Not Out

While the RISC manufacturers seem to be on the ropes, they are certainly
not dying out any time soon.

Sun is currently working on a UltraSPARC chip that takes 6 to 8 cores and
puts them on one die. That means that each of the chips will be able to
handle up to 32 threads simultaneously. The chip is part of Sun’s Throughput
computing initiative, currently code-named Niagara.

IBM is also looking at doing multi-core processing with its upcoming
PowerPC 5 and PowerPC 6 lines.

“I don’t see Sun giving up on UltraSPARC and people thought IBM was going
to jump on the Itanium bandwagon, which they haven’t,” said Krewell.
“Certainly they see their Z-series, which is their flagship mainframe
processor, as just as good or better than anything that Itanium can offer.”

Krewell says Intel’s benefit is that they now have the team that designed
the Alpha chip under its wing.

“They were widely admired from an engineering standpoint, it’s just that
DEC never knew what to do with the technology and Compaq had so many
products, that it wasn’t able to market the line,” Krewell said.

Ultimately, it is up to the customer to decide what types of computing
they want.

“Take for example, what they are doing over at Google,” Krewell said.
“They’ve taken a volume technology approach with PC platforms, hundreds and
hundreds of vanilla boxes broken up over a large area so that when one dies
it is replaced without losing the data. If you are dealing with a banking
system, I don’t think you would want to do it over a bunch of PC platform in
a warehouse somewhere but if you are trying to run a huge data center or
solve complex problems like NEC’s global climate simulator, you would want
faster chips that are scalable and more reliable.”

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