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Multi-Core Processors Coming of Age

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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


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


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


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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