Hardware Today: x86 Alternatives, Few but Strong

At first glance, the non-x86 world seems to be waging a losing battle. Last year, the fray claimed HP and SGI, both of which defected to the Intel/AMD world. This year has had casualties: Long-time IBM POWER advocate Apple announced its switch to Intel chips for the Mac.

It may be an x86 world, but SPARC and POWER are holding their own.

Explaining the move, as well as the planned transition to Intel chips for its server, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told the MacWorld audience, "Looking ahead, Intel has the strongest processor roadmap by far."

So is there any hope? Most certainly. Especially when you consider the two players standing in tall in the non-x86 field: Sun and IBM. Only time will tell if there is a future for those outside the x86 perimeter. But if the recent announcements from the OEMs are anything to go by, SPARC and POWER are going to be around for the long haul.

Both vendors, after all, are contributing to all the key areas of the chip arena, such as performance, multicore, and energy savings. Further, they are making their products more attractive to the small- and midsize businesses demanding far more database and transaction performance than ever before, while continuing to cater to the needs of the high end.

"I believe we will see at least one speed bump for POWER chips and probably a bump for SPARC during the course of 2006," says Dan Olds, principal at Oregon-based Gabriel Consulting Group. "In many ways, these chips are harnessed in the Unix systems that are the workhorses of the enterprise infrastructure, where they are running massively large workloads with exacting availability requirements."


Last year saw no let-up in the frequency of chip-related releases from IBM. In early 2005, POWER chips already had simultaneous multithreading, micropartioning hardware support with subprocessor allocation, and a built-in memory controller. In October, Big Blue's POWER5 Plus introduced better performance resulting from higher internal bus clock rates, large page-size support, and memory controller improvements. Moreover, a 37 percent decrease in chip size led to reduced electrical consumption for users.

Further, IBM is ahead of its x86 rivals when it comes to multicore technology.

"The Quad-Core Module was introduced that doubled the number of cores per socket," says Jeff Howard, program director for IBM's eServer P5 Product Marketing. "Composed of two dual-core Power5 Plus chips on one substrate, the eight simultaneous threads per socket provided an excellent price to performance ratio."

Howard says virtualization has resulted in a more efficient use of processor resources and better application responsiveness. Virtualization, he says, enables clients to deploy segments of a network independent of physical location and connection to the network.

This has had a major impact on performance. Although the raw gain in MHz is significant, it doesn't tell the whole story.

"At the system level and in the market, we're going to see a year of increased competition between POWER, SPARC, and Itanium, focusing on the business value these types of systems can provide — ROI, reduced complexity, higher utilization, lower overall costs — rather than the speeds and feeds." — Dan Olds, Principal, Gabriel Consulting Group

"IBM made a major step in performance with its Power5 and Power5 Plus — an increase in processor speed by 10 to 15 percent," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst from Insight 64. "But once you factor in all of the other enhancements, that total gain goes as high as 25 to 30 percent."

Brookwood also cites IBM is the clear leader in the single-thread space. When he compared POWER to Sun UltraSparc and Intel Itanium, IBM came out well ahead on single-threaded applications.

Plenty of SPARC Left in Sun

IBM isn't the only non-x86 game in town, however. Far from meekly holding on against the Intel/AMD onslaught, Sun is making headlines of its own. In fact, 2005 was a banner year in the SPARC arena.

"SPARC was huge news last year, as Sun dramatically improved the chip's overall performance and performance-per-watt compared to anything in the market — AMD, Intel, or IBM POWER," says Brookwood. "The performance-per-watt is four to 10 times better than any other chip."

Per Brookwood's figures, the latest UltraSPARC chips consume 70 watts, compared to 90 watts for AMD, 100 watts for IBM POWER5, and 120 to 150 for Intel. He reckons SPARC performs at a level of four or five dual-core Opteron processors for some workloads. To his mind, the Sun chip is particularly suited to transactional workloads, database applications, and Web serving. However, Brookwood also notes the chip is not well suited for heavy-duty scientific or floating-point calculations.

Of particular note is the Sun UltraSPARC T1 microprocessor, the first chip to be released with eight cores. Russell Ito, group manager for the Scalable Systems Group at Sun, reports that each core has four threads, for a total of 32 working simultaneously in the Sun Fire T2000 and T1000 servers.

"Multicore has proven to be the best way to raise the performance bar," says Olds. "I expect to see more quad-core and larger (8-core or more) designs in the future."

Not surprisingly, the primary T1 customer base uses this product for Web searching, Web serving, video streaming, online shopping, podcasting, database crunching, and other Web-tier applications.

"In some cases, the performance boost in these areas is as high as three to five times," says Ito.

Sun is also pressing ahead on all fronts with UltraSPARC R&D spending. As a result, a firm processor roadmap stretches out for years, although the company keeps most of the details under wraps. The Rock, for example, is a high-end chip Sun has had in development for the processor market for some time now. It is intended for large servers and is slated for release in 2008.

"The Rock will have a significantly more advanced architecture with greater cores and threads," says Ito. "It will extend the UltraSPARC audience well beyond the Web, application, and database tier."

Other Sun products scheduled for release this year are the Advanced Product Line (APL) and Niagara II processors. Details of APL are hard to come by. All Ito will say is that it is being developed in partnership with Fujitsu. Similarly, the Niagara II chip is outlined only in the vaguest terms. Currently, it is not expected until 2007. It is expected to have more threads per core and "a much richer architecture."

Fighting Talk

There is no doubt that both Sun and IBM are continuing to give serious backing to non-x86 architectures. Yet, at the same time both have quietly introduced and expanded their x86-based product lines during the past two years: IBM's xSeries servers using Intel chips, and Sun's "x64" line using AMD Opteron 64-bit processors.

So are the OEMs hedging their bets? The long-term product roadmaps and R&D spending indicate otherwise. In fact, both camps appear to be gearing up for a big push against the encroachment of Intel Itanium 2 chips into the midrange and high end.

"At the system level and in the market, we're going to see a year of increased competition between POWER, SPARC, and Itanium, focusing on the business value these types of systems can provide — ROI, reduced complexity, higher utilization, lower overall costs — rather than the speeds and feeds," says Olds. "I expect that the major vendors will continue to split the market almost evenly in terms of revenue. Increased competition between vendors is a win for customers, who will be able to score more bang for their Unix server bucks."

This article was originally published on Jan 30, 2006
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