Server Vendors Gear Up for Dual-Core Opterons
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Advanced Micro Devices has put its first dual-core Opterons in the field, and the X86 platform is finally starting to get back into parity with the RISC/Unix server market, which has had dual-core CPUs for years. With AMD coming ahead of Intel with dual-core server chips, AMD's partners are keen to use the edge that this gives their products. But server makers that also partner with Intel have to play it cool. AMD has great technology, but it does not have appreciable market share--yet.
Sun Microsystems, as we all know, is working on its second-generation of Opteron-based servers, code-named "Galaxy," and it will not be talking about them at the dual-core Opteron server launch today in New York. While Sun has said that it will soon have a server line that spans to 16-way processing--presumably an eight-socket box using dual-core Opteron 800s--it has not nailed down a firm launch date for these machines. Sun could launch the Galaxy machines at its Networking Computing 2005 Q2 (NC05Q2) quarterly announcement, which in Washington, DC, on May 3, but this seems unlikely if Sun cannot ship them almost immediately. Sun almost certainly does not want to launch new products as it is winding down its fiscal year in June, but all the talk about Galaxy has the same effect on many buyers as if they knew the real launch date: they are content to wait before they buy. Sun will say this isn't happening. Maybe not in all cases, but certainly in some. Only if Sun gave me an affordable and sensible upgrade path to Galaxy would I buy a V20z or V40z today.
In the meantime, what Sun can do is get dual-core Opteron 800 processors into its Sun Fire V40z server, which is based on a motherboard designed by Newisys. Graham Lovell, senior director of X64 server at Sun, says that the company will put dual-core chips into the two-socket Sun Fire V20z as soon as they are available. When asked about a single-socket server, which could use single- or dual-core Opterons, Lovell said that Sun had no plans for such a product. Considering how many uniprocessors that Dell sells a year, Sun might be wise to rethink that position. "There is a price point below where the V20z is today in the rack-mounted server space," he conceded. Maybe it will happen. Think about it this way: dual-core, single socket is the new two-way server for a lot of workloads that are not I/O or memory intensive.
Because the Opteron 800 processors used in four-way and larger systems are just starting to ramp up, Sun is only selling the dual-core chips in its heaviest V40z configuration. Specifically, an extra large configuration with four Opteron 875 chips (running eight cores at 2.2 GHz), 16 GB of main memory, and two 73 GB disk drives will sell for $38,995. The current top-end V40z with four 2.6 GHz Opteron 852s (single core) costs $31,595. That is not a big premium for a lot more performance.
Customers who bought V20z and V40z systems Opteron 252s in the two-socket machines and Opteron 852s in the four-socket machines can drop dual-core Opterons in their machines and do a BIOS update and they are running. Those who bought V20z and V40zs using other 90 nanometer Opterons have to buy upgrade kits from Sun. The kit for the V40z upgrade is a bit pricey at $5,000 per CPU, but the resulting upgrade can almost double the performance of the box on multithreaded workloads, so the upgrade offers good bang for the buck. Customers who bought V20z servers based on the earlier Opterons (based on a 130 nanometer chip process and using different voltage regulators and slightly different motherboards) will have to do a push-pull upgrade to get dual-core support. The same thing will happen again with servers based on future Opterons made with a 65 nanometer process. These are the laws of physics, and all server makers have the same problem. Sun just admits it. By the way, if you buy the CPU upgrade kit from Sun, you get to keep the existing Opteron processors, which you can repopulate to empty sockets in other machines. You just need to add that heat sink gunk onto the chip, slap the proper heat sink on, and drop it into a slot.
Hewlett-Packard plans to roll out the dual-core Opterons across its ProLiant line, including blade servers and rack servers; it will also add them to its xw9300 workstation, which is a two-socket machine. The two-socket BL25p and BL35p blade servers and the two-socket DL145 entry rack servers, and the two-socket ProLiant DL385 midrange rack servers will get dual-core Opterons in the June timeframe, which is when AMD will be able to ship the dual-core Opteron 200 Series chips.
What HP can launch at today's AMD event in New York is support for the four-socket BL45p blade for its BladeSystem blade server chassis and in its four-socket DL585 rack server. Interestingly, HP says it will deliver the BL45p and DL585 servers at the same price points for dual-core systems as it currently sells for single-core systems. (My guess is that means where the AMD prices are the same for those chips--for instance, the 1.8 GHz dual-core chip costs the same as the 2.6 GHz single core chip, and offers anywhere from 20 to 30 percent better performance, according to AMD.) Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for HP's Industry Standard Server group, says that a reasonably loaded DL585 will probably cost around $20,000, with a heavily loaded box coming in at around $60,000 or so. This is not a lot of money for the punch that these machines will pack.
IBM has already prelaunched the eServer 326, its second-generation, two-socket Opteron server. But because the 200 Series Opteron processors will not be available in systems until June or so, IBM cannot begin shipments of these servers before then. Moreover, even though IBM has committed to bringing the Opterons into its BladeCenter blade server chassis, and given that IBM has focused on its two-way blades (since the two-way server is the sweet spot in the server market), it seems likely that IBM will eventually debut a two-socket blade (much like the two-socket HS20 blade that used the Intel Xeon DP processors) that uses Opteron. If IBM was planning on delivering a four-socket Opteron blade, it could have launched it today, and it did not. IBM sells a four-socket Xeon MP-based blade server already, and engineering that to support the existing single-core Opteron 800s or the new dual-core variants would not have been a big deal. Beyond the eServer 326 and the future Opteron blade, IBM is not saying much more about Opterons inside servers.
IBM is, however, very excited about Opterons inside workstations, and Susan Davi, worldwide product line manager for the IntelliStation A Pro workstation line at Big Blue, says that the company has the dominant market share in the Opteron-based workstation market (which has HP and Sun as players, too) and that the company intends to keep that market share. To that end, IBM will be announcing an A Pro workstation that supports the 200 Series dual-core Opterons and full-bore PCI-Express graphics cards ranging from a low-end Nvidia Quadro 2D graphics card to a high-end system using a 3DLabs Wildcat Realizm 800 graphics card. A base A Pro with a single 2.6 GHz Opteron 252 processor (that's a single core) with 2 GB of main memory, an 80 GB SATA drive, and a 2D card costs $4,250; to get the fastest 3D card, you have to add another $2,400 or so. These are very powerful workstations (as will any machines with similar components be), and only a half-decade ago, you would have to spend 10 times as much to get half the performance. IBM is taking orders for the A Pro 6217 now, and will ship them in June.