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With Xeon E7, Intel pushes into vulnerable Unix turf

Intel partners are readying RISC killers based on the new Xeon E7, but as usual, x86 servers won’t win out overnight.

IT shops eyeing x86 servers as a replacement for legacy Unix/RISC systems will have a slew of new server models to choose from in coming months, with yesterday’s official launch of the Intel Xeon E7 microprocessor, code-named Westmere-EX.

But Xeon E7 technical prowess aside, data center managers still need to weigh the option of running their mission-critical applications on x86 against the high cost and complexity of performing a platform migration, observers said.

Westmeres are coming

In the next two months, 19 server vendors will offer 35 systems based on Xeon E7. They will include heavyweights Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co., Dell Inc. and IBM, as well as smaller players, such as Cisco Systems, Silicon Graphics International (SGI), Quanta Services Inc., Unisys and Super Micro Computer Inc. Most systems will fall in the four-processor bucket, although some will come in at two processors. And some, such as the SGI Altix UV, can scale up to 256 sockets. Overall, Intel Corp. is aware of 60 server designs based on Xeon E7 that will ship by the end of the year, said Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager for Intel’s data center group.

Those systems promise significant performance and availability improvements over previous generations. Compared with the Xeon 7500 family, or Nehalem-EX, the Xeon E7 family ups the maximum number of cores from eight to 10; doubles its memory capacity to 2 TB; improves virtualization security with Trusted Execution Extension (TXT); improves encryption speeds; gains new reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS) features; and maintains the same thermal envelope throughout.

By and large, Xeon E7-based systems will cater to large, single-instance workloads, i.e., databases, said McLeod Glass, HP’s worldwide director of marketing for industry standard servers and software.

The first HP servers to use the Xeon E7 are the ProLiant DL620c, DL680 and DL580c, which are scheduled to ship on May 1 of this year, and the eight-socket DL980, due to arrive a month later.

IBM will offer the Xeon E7 in its System x3850 X5, x3690 X5 and BladeCenter HX5 models. Dell plans to include the Xeon E7 in the PowerEdge R810, R910 and M910. And last week, Cisco announced new Unified Computing System server models based on the Xeon E7: the C260 M2, B230 M2, B250 M2 and C460 M2.

Walking a fine line

In a teleconference, Intel seemed positively giddy about the prospect of the Xeon E7 making further inroads against legacy RISC platforms. To that end, it trotted out customers that had successfully migrated applications, including SAP and Oracle Corp.’s E-Business, from legacy RISC platforms to x86.

Vishal Mehra, senior member of the technical staff at Texas Instruments, told how the company was able to reduce processing times from one week to three hours in its SAP environment.

Likewise, Bernie O’Connor, director of IT at Anixter International, a supplier of commercial and electronics components and a mainframe shop, reported that the combination of IBM System x and the IBM pureScale appliance made it easier to deploy new software and retain mainframe class reliability.

HP’s Glass, hardly a neutral observer, called Xeon E7 “a great replacement” for Oracle’s (Sun Microsystems’) SPARC, but it could just as easily replace Intel’s own Itanium, the basis of HP’s Integrity systems.  

Payroll processing company Paycor Inc. recently replaced its aging eight-way Integrity system with a ProLiant DL980 to great effect, Kevin Armour, Paycor CTO told earlier this year. As a Microsoft Windows shop, the firm briefly considered upgrading to a new Integrity system, but since Microsoft discontinued support for Itanium last year, it would have had to migrate to HP-UX. Instead, it chose an Intel-based DL980, because it has a lot more performance than its aging system, comparable service levels and comes in at about half the price.

Mindful of the fine line Intel must walk with its Xeon/Itanium strategy, Intel’s Skaugen was careful to talk up its Itanium roadmap. On the one hand, Xeon E7 systems are generating benchmarks that outperform systems based on IBM POWER, Oracle SPARC, and yes, Intel Itanium, Skaugen said. But going forward, he said Xeon and Itanium will leapfrog each other every two years, with new Xeons delivering 40% to 55% performance improvements every year and Itanium doubling performance every two years.

Both Intel and HP are sensitive about Itanium of late since Oracle said it would discontinue software development for the chip.

That uncertainty notwithstanding, Intel clearly relishes its potential for success in mission-critical scenarios.

And who can blame it? As Skaugen pointed out, long-term trends favor Intel and x86 over all other competitors. In 2002, the RISC market stood at about $30 billion, compared to the x86 market at $15 billion. In 2010, the tables had turned, and the RISC market had shrunk to $15 billion, and x86 had swelled to $30 billion, Skaugen said.

But IT shops running on legacy platforms face powerful headwinds, according to Nathan Brookwood, founder and principal analyst at Insight 64.

“The RISC guys, [shops on IBM POWER, Sun SPARC or even HP-UX on Itanium] tend to be locked in to proprietary UNIX systems. And for those users to move to Linux, they need to touch almost all of their code – and they don’t like to do that,” Brookwood said.

Even if Xeon E7 comes close to the performance and RAS characteristics of RISC chips, Linux “isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be,” relative to proprietary Unix operating systems, he said, and “it’s unlikely to ever get there.”

“Historically, if you give someone the choice of staying on an existing platform – even if they have to pay a premium – versus migrating to a more cost-effective platform, they will stay put.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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