Sun, AMD Talk Up the Opteron Future
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
It may be a LinuxWorld, but Sun Microsystems and Advanced Micro Devices want to be perceived as players in hardware and software technology that meshes well with the open source world. That's why the two companies gave an update on their use of it at the show, and also discussed a wide range of issues such as the advent of multicore processors, virtualization, and what this means for customers and software pricing.
Sun, of course, supports Linux distributions from Red Hat and Novell on its Sun Fire 60x and 65x Xeon-based servers as well as on the Sun Fire V20z and V40z Opteron-based servers. In fact, Sun announced that it has certified Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server on its X86 boxes at the show. (These four servers also support Microsoft's Windows operating system.)
John Fowler, general manager of Sun's Network Systems Group, which has the job of making and selling X86-based servers for Sun, said that the company will no longer make Xeon-based servers and is focusing exclusively on Opteron-based designs for its X86 family of servers. (This comes as no surprise, of course, and Sun will continue to sell current machines as long as customers want them and will similarly support them for years.)
The reason why Sun can commit so wholly to AMD's Opteron is not that the chip has an arguably better architecture than the competing Xeon and Itanium architectures from Intel, but because AMD has become a much more reliable and aggressive chipmaker since it started the "SledgeHammer" 64-bit X86 processor project in 1999 that ultimately became the Opterons.
Henri Richard, who is group vice president of worldwide sales at AMD said that the old AMD from a few years ago was a company that desktop and server makers wanted to partner with, but they feared doing so because AMD often made promises that it could not deliver on. "We think we are a predictable, dependable partner now," he said, boasting that the Opteron execution has been "impeccable" and that AMD would beat Intel to market with dual-core X86 processors by a significant margin. (With the lack of dependability in Intel's roadmaps, it is hard to say, of course when Intel's own dual-core "Dempsey" Xeon and "Montecito" Itanium processors will come out, so it is hard to figure out how big of a lead AMD will have with dual core chips.) AMD was demonstrating dual-core Opteron processors running in servers from Sun and Cray as well as a new workstation from Hewlett-Packard at LinuxWorld.
AMD thinks--as does Sun, which was designing Itanium-based software for many years, remember--that Opteron has the technology edge, and now it has the roadmap edge. Pressure from Intel sometimes forced AMD to make promises with the Athlon X86 processors that it could not deliver on. "What AMD has done," said Richard, "is change its culture. We now know it is not about always being the first, or always being the fastest, but rather always doing what we say we are going to do."
Richard said that the fact that Solaris 10 has been optimized for the X86-64 architecture embodied in the Opteron processor will change some market dynamics. And Sun is clearly hoping for this, or it would not have decided to back the Opteron three years ago. But in the meantime, Sun's V20z and V40z servers are largely a Linux play for Sun, with the vast majority of machines shipping with Linux, not Solaris 9 or the new Solaris 10, which has only been shipping for a few weeks.
Fowler says that Sun currently has 1,400 customers for its Opteron-based machines, and that this customer count is growing by more that 30 percent sequentially each quarter. (By that math, Sun should have well over 4,000 customers by this time next year.) That is presuming, of course, that Sun's future "Galaxy" line of Opteron machines, being created by Sun founder Andy Bechtolsheim for initial shipments later this year and rolling out into early 2006, are not so disruptive that Sun's growth rate accelerates even further. Fowler also says that repurchase rates among Opteron system buyers is quite high, at 55 percent, especially considering that many IT shops do not make purchases every year.
Yahoo, for instance, has come back three times to buy Sun Fire V20z servers to support some of its workloads. Yahoo benchmarked those applications on Xeon-based systems using the 64-bit "Nocona" processors from Intel against the V20z servers, and found that it needed 660 Xeon servers to support the workload. The same workload could run on 460 Opteron servers and deliver the same performance, which is a significant savings in money. And each V20z server burned quite a bit less electricity and dissipated a bit less heat, so the heat profile of the Opteron solution was significantly lower than the Xeon solution. A similar benchmark by the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom required 750 Xeon servers to do the work of 500 Opteron servers, he said.
As you might expect, Fowler was not about to say much about the future Galaxy server designs. "I'm not going to pre-announce products," he said. "In calendar 2005, we are going to announce a raft of new Opteron products, and we are looking forward to a lot of people taking a look at them." He said that one of the advantages that the Opteron processors had was that its architecture scaled from one to eight processors from the getgo and that as you add processors, memory bandwidth increases. He slammed the Intel alternatives, saying that each type of server (unprocessed, two-way, and four-way) needed a separate chipset and a slightly different architecture to scale. To be fair, both Intel and AMD sell different flavors of Xeon and Opteron chips based on how far they want SMP scalability to go, and this is less of a differentiator than being able to use NUMA to make servers with up to eight processors. The fact that no leading server maker has delivered an eight-way Opteron box even though the chips and chipsets that enable it have been available for years makes this argument somewhat suspect. There will be more to Galaxy than just scaling to 16 processors (presumably with single- and dual-core Opterons) in a single system image--and if there isn't, then Sun will be in big trouble.
When pressed a bit about how the Galaxy designs would be able to shake up a pretty predictable market dominated by uni-processor, two-way, and four-way Xeon (and now a slice of Opteron) servers, Fowler said that Sun would be innovating in a number of areas. He also said that Sun was pressing AMD to push the performance--meaning the clock speed and possibly the core count--of the Opteron processors, too. "We are actually push AMD pretty hard on the roadmap," he said, noting that Sun was also interested in adding virtualization and reliability features to the processors. Galaxy systems, being designed for enterprises, will also have a lot of fault handling and remote management features, and could come in unexpected form factors. "We do not see the world as being defined by two-way and four-way rack-mounted servers," he said. Sun is also working on compiler technology for the Galaxy systems, since being able to create software that stresses the system less to accomplish a task is just as valuable as any other innovation in terms of improving the ratios of work per watts and work per dollar. Whether or not Galaxy machines will come in blade form factors remains to be seen, but Sun has said publicly that it will deliver a new generation of blade servers in early 2006.