When More Means Less

In June 1998, Intel released its long-awaited Profusion chipset to vendors for development and set in motion the release of a generation of SMP 8-way servers. By July 1999, nearly every major server vendor was promising a September ship date for Pentium III Xeon processor servers based on this chipset. Intel expects Profusion to provide additional horsepower to run e-commerce, database, terminal server, messaging, and decision support systems. Among the OSs that will run on Profusion are Novell NetWare, Solaris, SCO UnixWare, and of course, Windows NT Server 4.0, Enterprise Edition.

Corollary developed the Profusion chipset with support from Compaq. To aggressively move into the 8-way processor server market, Intel acquired Corollary in November 1998 and hired 65 application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) engineers from NEC. Now, Intel's architecture is poised to better compete in enterprise and glass-house IT environments.

The Profusion chipset provides a caching coherency filter for each of the two 4-processor CPU buses, with each processor bank supporting up to 16GB of Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM). A third 64-bit 66MHz hot-plug PCI bus (based on a Compaq specification) provides I/O support. Profusion balances CPU, memory, and I/O activity to provide linear scaling across eight processors.

The market patterns of 4-way servers will likely hold true for 8-way servers, but at a lower volume because 8-ways are more expensive servers. According to International Data Corporation (IDC), about 111,000 units sold in 1997, which represented $1.93 billion in 4-way server revenue. After a weak performance during the early part of 1998 (both the Asian financial crisis and a memory problem with Pentium Pro chips affected sales), the 4-way market took off when the Pentium II Xeon chip appeared. According to IDC, four vendors dominated the 4-way market: Compaq with 45 percent, Dell with 16 percent, HP with 13 percent, and IBM with 9 percent. The remaining players, including Sun and Siemens, shared 17 percent of the market.

In late 1997, three standards were competing in the 8-way chip market: Axil Computer's Adaptive Memory Crossbar architecture, NCR's OctaScale chipset, and Intel's Profusion chipset. Axil Computer, an independent business unit of Hyundai, shipped the Northbridge NX801 8-way system that used Pentium Pro chips. HP and Data General licensed the Adaptive Memory Crossbar technology from Axil and began to create systems using this technology. However, Hyundai pulled its support from Axil Computer in June 1998, and HP and Data General began to favor systems built around Profusion. The Adaptive Memory Crossbar technology is up for sale, and industry analysts have questioned the architecture's ability to scale to the new Xeon processor capabilities.

Still, Profusion has some competitors. In April, NEC shipped the Express5800 HV8600, an 8-way Pentium II Xeon system based on the NEC Aqua II chipset. With 128MB of SDRAM, Level 3 cache, up to 8GB of RAM, and up to 12 Ultra 2 SCSI hard disks, the price of the HV8600 starts at approximately $79,000. NEC also announced the enlargement of its server and systems integration business.

Amdahl, the mainframe vendor and subsidiary of Fujitsu, has an 8-way Xeon processor: the Fujitsu teamserver M800i series. Amdahl based the M800i design on dual Intel 440NX chipsets linked with Fujitsu's Synfinity interconnect technology and a Non-Uniform Memory Access (NUMA) type. The M800i offers ten 64-bit PCI slots, ten 32-bit slots, and up to 16GB of memory. Amdahl will offer the M800i with its fibre-channel Logical Volume Series (LVS) storage system and with its Enterprise Systems Connection (ESCON) channel protocols that provide SNA connectivity to IBM S/390 mainframes running on an IP network. Other vendors offering non-Intel 8-way servers are Sequent, Digital Equipment, and Unisys.

All the NT server vendors will soon offer 8-way servers based on Profusion and have been champing at the bit to get these units out the door. Demonstration models using the Profusion chipset began to appear at Comdex/Fall '98 from Compaq, IBM, and HP. Hitachi showed the Hitachi VisionBase Pentium II 8880R Xeon server, which uses a special version of Profusion. By the time CeBIT came in March, Compaq, IBM, Groupe Bull, and Siemens also had 8-way Intel servers to show.

What makes Profusion both interesting and important is that it provides a standard that any computer manufacturer can use to create an 8-way server. So, any vendor (e.g., Dell or Gateway) that sells 4-way servers will find offering servers based on Profusion easy and necessary. We'll also see many white box server manufacturers sell Profusion-based servers.

Multiprocessor servers are fueling the trend of server-consolidation. An 8-way that can do the work of nearly eight uniprocessor servers (or nearly two 4-way servers) provides a strong financial incentive to upgrade. However, when you replace multiple servers with one server, you're trading several points of failure for a single point of failure. You lose the administrative overhead of having to deal with these extra systems, but you also lose the benefit of redundancy. Losing this redundancy makes establishing fault tolerance in your IT infrastructure more imperative.

Questions concerning NT's scalability and effective use of eight processors have largely been answered. For more information about NT's performance on 8-way servers, see Compaq's studies at http:// www.compaq.com /products/ servers/technology/ eightway-benefits.html. Large businesses that might otherwise look at RISC machines, such as the IBM RS/6000 or the Sun Microsystems Enterprise 10000, might have an interest in these 8-way servers. The adoption of 8-way servers and the promise of better NT clustering and load-balancing options in the near future might help close the gap in scalability that strongly favors UNIX.

8-way Server Vendors
Amdahl * http://www.amdahl.com
Axil Computer * http://axil.environs.com
Compaq * http://www.compaq.com
Digital Equipment * http://www.digital.com
Groupe Bull * http://www.bull.com
Hitachi * http://www.hitachipc.com
HP * http://www.hp.com
IBM * http://www.ibm.com
NCR * http://www.ncr.com
NEC * http://www.nec-computers.com
Sequent * http://www.sequent.com
Siemens * http://www.siemens.de
Unisys * http://www.unisys.com

Corrections to this Article:
  • "When More Means Less" inadvertently omitted Data General from the article's "8-way Server Vendors" sidebar. Data General's URL is http://www.dg.com.
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