Processor technology for Unix systems: AMD or Intel?

Unix admins have many processor technology options for their environments. An expert compares offerings from AMD and Intel to help you make the best decision for your data center.

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Nearly every six months, processor technology is reinvented with new features and performance improvements. And with server advancements, IT administrators can run 10 or more virtual machines (VMs) on a single physical server. While many initial server technology developments were geared toward Windows-based VMs, in recent years, hardware releases from AMD and Intel show a changing trend toward open source systems.

Along with increasing demand for redundant and stable Unix-based physical and virtual machines, processor manufacturers have also heard cries from virtualization and migration engineers. Intel and AMD lead the market with their respective processor lines. Imagine how an eight-core processor supporting up to 1 TB of RAM or a 12-core monster with granular capabilities could better utilize underlying hardware components or enhance power utilization for an even greener server room. The intriguing part is that both manufacturers are still developing new processors at a remarkable pace for Unix systems.

Intel Xeon 7500 series power, performance
Intel has partnered with Unix-based manufacturers to create a processor technology that can drive platforms including Solaris OS. The collaboration optimizes how Solaris and the Intel microarchitecture work together on the new Intel Xeon 7500 series processor (formerly codenamed Nehalem-EX).

New Intel Xeon processors include improved hyper-threading technology and Turbo Boost Technology, which can convert any available power headroom into higher operating frequencies. When a VM requires additional processing power, Intel Xeon increases the frequency in the active core when conditions such as load, power consumption and temperature permit it. By utilizing thermal and power headroom as a performance boost, operating systems running in a virtual environment (like Solaris) can work more efficiently with less overall heat and power consumption. In fact, Intel’s power utilization testing on new Sun  machines has shown up to 54% improvement in virtualization power performance per watt.

The Intel Xeon 7500 processor also includes improved I/O virtualization and I/O performance through direct assignment of a device to a VM -- I/O resources can now be allocated to existing or newly configured VMs. With better I/O for each VM, workload performance also improves. You’ll see faster VM load times and better legacy system support.

Intel is also further enhancing its Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O performance by speeding up VM transition (entry and exit) times, meaning much faster load times for a resource-intensive VM and easier migrations between physical boxes or blade servers. By supporting 16 GB DDR3 DIMMs, the newest processors can enable up to 1 TB of storage in a four-socket server and have double the memory usually found in an eight-socket product. Features like on-chip cache, RAM and additional memory bandwidth help improve overall system performance. Intel has also placed four memory channels in the Nehalem-EX chips, which puts it on par with AMD's Opteron 6100 Series processors, codenamed Magny-Cours.

Eight-core processor technology aimed at Unix crowd
Intel has specifically targeted Unix deployments with Nehalem-EX’s eight cores, which are considered the hardware component for server virtualization. The eight-core chip facilitates massive consolidations for Unix platforms running both legacy and modern OSes.

Dell has already implemented Intel’s eight-core processor in its new PowerEdge Server series. The PowerEdge M910 is a four-socket blade server that can scale up to 512 GB of RAM across 32 DIMM slots, while the R910 rack server is specifically aimed at Unix virtual migrations, large databases and virtualization shops. The R910 is a 4U Nehalem-EX based server with up to 1 TB of RAM using 64 DIMMs of memory.

With eight-core processors, Dell and HP can compete on Sun’s turf, touting superior migration and virtualization services for reduced instruction set computing (RISC) and Unix data centers.

Other manufacturers have also been quick to utilize the new Xeon 7500 series processors. The new Hewlett-Packard (HP) ProLiant DL580 Generation 7 (G7) server, for example, is equipped with DDR3 memory expandable to 1 TB and touts an advanced I/O slot configuration. The new HP G7 server line shows much faster performance than earlier ProLiant servers, especially when coupled with new eight-core Xeon processors.

Oracle has also jumped on board with the Sun Fire X4800 server, featuring up to eight Intel Xeon 7500 processors, 1 TB of memory and eight PCIe ExpressModules. For Unix administrators, that means more power, consolidation and easier virtualization of pre-existing platforms. These new machines are optimized to run Oracle Solaris, Oracle Enterprise Linux and Oracle VM, and are certified to run Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE and Windows Server.

AMD Magny-Cours vs. Intel Nehalem-EX for Unix
A fierce Intel competitor, AMD’s 12-core processor, Magny-Cours, is already implemented in HP, Dell, Acer, SGI and Appro systems. With Magny-Cours, AMD doubles the performance of its Istanbul chips, boasts four sockets available for DDR3 memory to Intel's two  and has up to 12 DIMMs per processor. Depending on the server hardware, that can translate to 512 GB of direct RAM support.

Also new with the 6100 Opteron line is the Advanced Platform Management Link (APML). APML provides an interface for processor and system management monitoring and controls system resources, including platform power consumption and cooling, through performance state (p-state) limits and CPU thermals.

Magny-Cours was a big step for AMD, and server manufacturers have responded. Dell, for example, released the PowerEdge R815 rack server geared toward lowering hardware costs and attracting Unix administrators. With AMD processors installed, the server is designed to deliver up to 48 processor cores (using four 12-core processors).

HP also released its new line of ProLiant machines that utilize the new 12-core AMD line. The ProLiant DL585 G7 and ProLiant BL465c G7 server blades come with the 12-core processor installed. The server blade is capable of handling two 12-core AMD 6100-series processors with up to 256 GB of allocated RAM. By comparison, the DL585 uses up to four 12-core Opteron chips and can handle up to 512 GB of DDR3 RAM.

With this new generation of servers, systems administrators now have much more granular control over their processor resources. Unix administrators also have more flexibility to use system resources as needed, and Unix systems can handle large database deployments for both physical and virtual platforms. Large Oracle environments, for example, can utilize new CPU capabilities and perform better in a virtual environment. Another benefit of new server technologies is licensing. For Unix applications that have licensing per-socket, you get more bang for your buck with more cores and still the same number of processors.

Unix admins see better VM memory, control with AMD Opteron
More memory is critical for supporting more VMs on a physical host system. AMD’s 6100 Opteron Series has four DDR3 memory channels versus three in Intel’s Xeon 5600, meaning a larger memory footprint. At three memory DIMMs per channel, for example, a Xeon can handle a maximum of nine DIMM slots per socket, but the new Opteron 6000 Series platform can handle 12. Using 4 GB DIMMs will translate into 36 GB on a Xeon versus 48 GB on an Opteron 6000 Series processor. This memory architecture also outshines the old Opteron, which had two memory channels for a maximum of eight DIMMs per CPU.

The increased memory channels are part of AMD's Direct Connect Architecture (DCA) 2.0, new to the Magny-Cours line. DCA 2.0 also increases the number of HyperTransport links between CPUs from three to four, providing faster CPU intercommunication. AMD also plans to further develop its AMD Virtualization technology (AMD-V) and AMD-P power technologies with its generation 2.0 capabilities. AMD-V 2.0 is now better able to support I/O-level virtualization and provide direct control of devices by a VM, and improves upon I/O performance within a VM. AMD-P 2.0 has added support for LV-DDR3 memory, APML and the much-anticipated AMD CoolSpeed Technology. CoolSpeed reduces p-states when a temperature limit is reached to allow a server to operate if the processor’s thermal environment exceeds safe operational limits.

With all of these additional cores and capabilities now at the administrator’s disposal, Unix environments and Windows shops can manage their data centers in a more efficient, blade-style environment. Admins initially hesitant to migrate or virtualize their Unix-based databases can now do so with more confidence. Data center administrators have the hardware resources available, giving them more control over data management and resource distribution.

Future processor technology developments
AMD and Intel will continue to release more advanced processors. AMD is expecting its “Interlagos” 16-core processor to be released sometime in 2011. Intel has also stated that its upcoming Westmere-EX chip will bring new capabilities through a scalable architecture and 32nm fabrication technology. The chip will increase the total number of cores from eight to 10, which means 20 threads can run in parallel. There will also be a memory upgrade from the previous Intel Xeon Processor 5500 Series by two times to 32 GB per DIMM, meaning a two-socket system would be able to support up to 2 TB of memory.

Unix admins can expect features from Intel and AMD that will make their legacy systems easier to manage. As computing environments grow older, new processor technology will be able to handle workloads more effectively in virtual environments. Upcoming technologies should increase ability to consolidate infrastructures using blade server technology that incorporates the new 16-core processor family. Intel and AMD will also focus on reducing power consumption. As dynamic resource allocation becomes more refined, power usage per watt will decrease. With the ability to stock RAM and processors into a blade server, you’ll be able to migrate and virtualize Unix systems, manage massive workloads between physical boxes and environments, and finally reduce your overall hardware footprint.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Kleyman, MBA, MISM, is an avid technologist with experience in network infrastructure management. His engineering work includes large virtualization deployments as well as business network design and implementation. Currently, he is the Director of Technology at World Wide Fittings Inc., a global manufacturing firm with locations in China, Europe and the United States.

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