Modern multicore and the next generation of IT

This ain't your daddy's Cadillac. How Intel's Westmere and AMD's Magny-Cours will change the face of IT forever

It seems that every few years, IT settles down somewhat. While processors get ever faster, storage gets ever bigger, and bandwidth grows exponentially, the workloads these technologies support seem to stabilize to a certain degree. Not long ago, Windows Active Directory domain controllers required their own dedicated server for even small shops, while now they're almost an afterthought in terms of performance. Where Microsoft Exchange used to be the 800-pound gorilla in most organizations, it can now generally be relegated to a VM, or at least a middle-tier server. Even big apps like SAP can suddenly seem small in the face of hugely powerful, modern multicore CPUs.

With the huge gains in CPU performance, storage densities, and network bandwidth seen over the past two years, traditional pain points simply aren't nearly as painful anymore. So what happens now?

[ Intel's new Westmere-EP Xeon is a worthy successor to the amazing Nehalem. See "InfoWorld review: Intel's Westmere struts its stuff." ]

If history is any guide, what happens now is a surge of new software. Unfortunately, much of that will be corner-cutting bloat, but at least some of it will be innovative and useful code that actually takes advantage of the hardware performance gains.

For instance, take the AES-NI instructions introduced in the new Intel Westmere-EP chips. In my performance testing, AES-NI produced a 400 percent performance boost in AES encryption tasks, reducing the time required to encrypt an 851MB file from 13.5 seconds to 3 seconds. That's simply huge. That means that whole-disk encryption tools leveraging the new instructions can realistically encrypt large volumes without a significant performance penalty. Encrypting swap can become commonplace. Conducting high-volume, highly secure digital transactions will no longer require dedicated crypto offloads or boatloads of CPU time. This just might be the key that locks all of our doors.

On the other hand, the ever-increasing core count of modern CPUs renders previously difficult software-only solutions quite attractive. Software RAID seemed like a significant performance hit not that long ago, requiring enough CPU cycles to threaten the core functions of the server. Now, it's not that big of a deal. Heck, why not dedicate a core just for that? You have at least three or five more.

And naturally, all of this pushes us further and further into virtualization as not just mainstream, but the only stream. For one thing, it's the only way nonthreaded applications can expect to exist in an increasingly multithreaded world, with few exceptions. It's only a matter of time before nonvirtualized servers are rarities, and embedded hypervisors rule the day. In fact, major hardware vendors are already developing and releasing virtualization-centric servers and blades that dispense with traditional form-factors and usage models. Imagine a world where the majority of the servers you have to choose from are specifically designed to run dozens of virtual servers, boasting dozens of cores, hundreds of gigabytes of RAM, and nearly no internal storage. That reality is knocking on the door. It's not mainstream yet, but it will be -- guaranteed.

Over the past few years, the CPU core war has seemed like a battle between Schick and Gillette over the number of blades each razor holds. Way back when, a single blade seemed like enough. Now it seems quaint. In IT, it's basically the same thing. There are still millions of single-core servers out there sucking up vast amounts of power, driving apps that would barely be noticeable if they were running on VMs on a modern server. Time, wear, and budgets will ultimately address that issue, but these days having a few dozen physical or logical CPUs in a single server that consumes less power than its predecessor is where we should be. Indeed, with today's launch of Westmere-EP and the pending launch of AMD's 12-core Magny-Cours, it's where we are.

So brace yourself. If you're running a small business shop, be prepared to see your entire infrastructure collapsed into two or three 1U servers. If you're running a large shop, you'll soon stop seeing physical servers as entities unto themselves but as nearly invisible cogs in a massive virtualization machine. Some of you have already turned this corner.

I've been beating the virtualization drum for quite some time. The beat gets louder and far more intricate every day. It's not just a potential path for general IT, it's quickly becoming the only path. Otherwise, we're just wasting cycles.

This story, "Modern multicore and the next generation of IT," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog and follow the latest developments in serversprocessors, and other hardware at InfoWorld.com.

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