Intel pitches scale-up x86 as big data architecture for IT shops

Intel's Xeon E7 v2 processor performs in-memory analytics in up to 32-socket servers, promising faster enterprise big data analytics.

Intel hopes its new Xeon E7 v2 processors lure large IT shops away from proprietary servers as many companies edge closer to implementing mission-critical cloud and big data infrastructure.

Intel Corp.'s latest processor packs up to 15 cores and 1.5 terabytes of memory per socket, which challenges the Sparc and IBM Power-based servers on performance.

"I wouldn't call this a Unix killer exactly, but with the performance improvements and the fact [that] Xeon is far less expensive, it will make it increasingly difficult for proprietary vendors to argue [that] their technical capabilities are worth the premium they are charging," said Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Inc.

It could have a bunch of chipmunks on a wheel inside, as long as it can run the software [executives] use well.

Mike Drips,
project manager, Wipro

The new processors' big data architecture doubles the performance of the previous-generation Xeon processor E7, with an I/O bandwidth four times higher and triple the memory capacity. The chips use Intel Run Sure Technology, Intel Integrated I/O and Intel Data Direct I/O with support for PCIe 3.0.

"Intel's story hinges on the overall performance per TCO [total cost of ownership] metric," said Kuba Stolarski, server research manager at IDC Corp., an analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass.

Intel is walking a line of cost and performance between pricey powerhouse RISC architectures and low-cost, low-power ARM-based server chips, Stolarski said. The E7 family is priced from just under $2,000 to $6,841 for the highest-end processors.

While in a one-to-one comparison the chip will cost more -- and draw more power -- than alternative RISC architectures on the market, data centers are likely to need fewer servers with the Xeon v2, so total cost of ownership drops for the same performance, analysts said.

But Intel may not have that edge for long.

Sources close to IBM said though the E7 v2 is "right on top of the pricing and performance" of existing Power 7 Plus-based servers, Big Blue's Power 8 chip, expected sometime in April 2014, opens up more competitive advantages.

"As far as the technical specs go, [E7 v2] compares more with the Power 8 for things like number of cores," the source said. "I think you will see the [Power 8] leapfrog this announcement."

Scale-up in a scale-out world

Most workloads in data centers aren't going to run on high-end RISC or CISC chips in the era of "good-enough" distributed x86 servers, said Christian Perry, senior analyst on data centers at Technology Business Research Inc.

The exception to this general trend is enterprise big data analysis and processing, where the RISC architecture has a foothold.

"Unless you are doing project-specific tasks or niche industries like energy, there are not applications out there that would tax this type of [Intel] processor," said Mike Drips, project manager with Wipro in Houston, an IT technical services company.

Drips, whose shop largely runs Intel-based servers, doesn't think server hardware makers will have much success comparing the E7's price-performance values against those of IBM's Power chip or Oracle's Sparc chip. Most IT shops are more interested in how chips match up against whatever existing software investments they have.

"CIOs and CEOs don't care much about what [RISC or CISC chip] is in the box; that isn't much of a motivator for someone to buy," Drips said. "[Executives] are only interested in results."

Software also matters, because Windows shops typically choose Intel.

Michael Steineke, vice president of IT at Edgenet Inc., which collects, optimizes and distributes data, runs Microsoft Windows Server 2012 R2, so RISC machines were not an option, he said.

The company replaced four-socket servers based on Intel Nehalem with NEC A2000 series, with 32 cores for its Software as a Service offerings that use Microsoft SQL Server. It also runs some very large Hyper-V virtual machines on the servers.

"We wanted the increased core count, increased I/O capacity and smaller physical footprint for our data center," Steineke said. He cited Intel's reliability, availability and serviceability features for applications with stringent service-level agreements. (The A2000 series starts at $30,000 per server.)

Server vendors bet on Intel E7 chips

Server manufacturers including Cisco, Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM and Lenovo, among others, offer systems with the new E7 Intel processors, and software providers such as Microsoft will support them for analytics offerings. Servers based on the Xeon E7 go up to 32 sockets, bucking the scale-out trend. The HP ProLiant DL580 Gen 8, based on Xeon E7 v2, starts at around $13,000.

Dell could attract more server buyers with the E7 v2 on its PowerEdge R920 than archrivals, which must walk a fine line in positioning both Intel-based and proprietary servers to their customers, according to some analysts.

IBM, Oracle and even HP have to be careful the way they position this [E7-based] system in relation to their proprietary systems, King said.

"Dell is the only one with a pure x86 play; they can run as high up in the enterprise as they want," King said.

For servers based on the pumped-up Xeon E7 v2 to win over IT buyers, these systems need to support high-intensity applications such as big data analytics, rendering engineering models or supporting service provider offerings.

"From a hardware perspective, it's not just storage to accommodate all of the data streaming in through a seemingly endless supply of touch points," Perry said. "[Data centers] need something to crunch that data."

With their high-memory capacity, these processors enable in-memory analytics rather than processors interacting with disk memory. Entire enterprise resource planning, customer resource management and other application databases will fit in the processors' memory because of this tailored big data architecture, speeding results on queries, according to Diane Bryant, who leads Intel's Data Center Group.

"The shifts we're seeing now in the data center are pulling the focus from hardware and placing it on business outcomes," Technology Business Research's Perry said, whether scale-up, scale-out or a hybrid of the two in cluster configurations does the trick.

Drips agreed.

"It could have a bunch of chipmunks on a wheel inside as long as it can run the software they use well," he said.

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