When Intel introduced the 64-bit Itanium processor in 2001, most buyers (and many server vendors) virtually ignored the chip because of its poor performance and weak third-party software support. If you haven't been following this segment of the server market during the past 2 years, you might want to take a second look; powerful new processors from AMD and Intel make migrating to 64-bit servers more compelling than ever.

Last year, Intel introduced the second-generation Itanium 2 processor (code-named Madison), which, according to published Transaction Processing Performance Council TPC-C test results (http://www.tpc.org/tpcc/results/tpcc_result_detail.asp?id=103082701), delivers on the 64-bit performance promises of its Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) architecture. As a result, enterprise software and server vendors are now supporting the 64-bit processor. In addition, AMD released its long-awaited 64-bit AMD Opteron processor last year, and Microsoft has promised to support the chip with a soon-to-be-released 64-bit version of Windows Server 2003.

Because Microsoft hasn't yet released a version of 64-bit Windows for AMD's chip, comparing the 64-bit performance of Itanium 2 with Opteron under Windows is impossible. But published TPC-C test results (http://www.tpc.org/tpcc/results/tpcc_result_detail.asp?id=10309091) demonstrate that the Opteron's performance using current 32-bit applications and Windows 2003 is extremely good. Because 32-bit performance has been Itanium's Achilles heel, Opteron could address a major concern of 64-bit server buyers. If you aren't ready to migrate your 32-bit applications to their 64-bit versions (or can't because 64-bit versions aren't available), your server applications are bumping up against the 32-bit system's 4GB memory limits, or your applications need higher performance levels than current Intel Xeon-based servers can provide, now might be the time to reevaluate your server strategy.

The Processors
Intel 64-bit processors debuted in 2001, with the introduction of Intel's first-generation 733MHz and 800MHz Itanium processors (code-named Merced). The first Itanium 2 processors (code-named McKinley) were 900MHz and 1GHz models that featured an improved architecture that substantially improved performance while maintaining binary compatibility with the original Itanium. Madison, the current generation of Itanium 2, uses a smaller process size (i.e., the average size of a chip's features) resulting in shorter electrical paths and a smaller surface area. The new manufacturing process lets Intel increase Madison's clock speeds to 1.3GHz, 1.4GHz, and 1.5GHz and enlarge L3 cache sizes to 3MB, 4MB, and 6MB, respectively, from McKinley's 1.5MB and 3MB cache sizes. Table 1, page 24, compares McKinley's and Madison's technical specifications with those of the original Itanium (Merced).

At press time, Intel introduced a lower-priced 1.4GHz version of Madison for dual-processor applications; this model features 1.5MB of L3 cache. The company also introduced a low-voltage 1GHz version of Madison with 1.5MB of L3 cache; the company claims that this processor uses about 50 percent less power than other Itanium 2 models. Intel's 8870 core logic chipset supports 2 to 16 processors; however, some first-tier server vendors have developed their own core logic chipsets that support more than 16 processors and offer additional capabilities.

AMD has released 1.4GHz, 1.6GHz, 1.8GHz, and 2GHz versions of its 64-bit Opteron processor. All models are available in 100, 200, and 800 series versions that support servers with one, two, or as many as eight processors, respectively, when paired with the AMD-8000 series core logic chipset. (Hardware vendors can use third-party chipsets to build servers that have more than eight processors.) Table 2 lists the Opteron's technical specifications. Don't assume that Operon's higher clock speeds necessarily translate into performance better than Itanium 2's. The different instruction sets and architectures make clock-speed comparisons meaningless. As you can see from Table 2 and Table 3, page 26, the Opteron's 1000-unit pricing for 100 and 200 series processors is substantially less than the Itanium 2's pricing and should help system vendors create 64-bit Opteron-based servers that cost less than similarly configured Itanium 2–based systems.

AMD and Intel have taken different approaches to 64-bit computing. The Itanium 2 employs an entirely new architecture and instruction set, whereas the Opteron extends the existing x86 architecture. Both vendors claim 64-bit performance that substantially exceeds the performance of similarly configured Xeon-based servers.

32-Bit Compatibility. Unlike the Itanium 2, the Opteron maintains full binary compatibility with existing x86 applications and lets them run at the processor's full speed. As a result, AMD positions the Opteron as the ideal solution for both 32-bit and 64-bit environments. In contrast, the Itanium 2 architecture has been optimized for 64-bit applications and doesn't provide native x86 support. The Itanium 2 runs 32-bit applications by translating their x86 instructions on the fly, resulting in 32-bit performance that falls far below that of the fastest Xeon processors.

Intel says that the 32-bit performance of the 1.5GHz, 6MB L3 cache Itanium 2 processor will improve to levels similar to that of the 1.5GHz Xeon processor with the release of Intel's IA-32 Execution Layer as part of Service Pack 1 (SP1) for Windows 2003, Enterprise Edition and Windows 2003, Datacenter Edition. The Execution Layer will perform the same instruction translation that the Itanium 2 currently executes internally. However, according to Intel, the Execution Layer does so much more efficiently. To date, weak 32-bit performance has hurt Itanium's sales because many applications aren't yet available in 64-bit versions, and buyers might be reluctant to port their proprietary applications to the new architecture right away. For this reason, Intel still recommends using Xeon-based servers for mission-critical 32-bit applications.

64-Bit Software
The availability of 64-bit software is a key decision-making determinant for many buyers. Currently, 64-bit versions of Windows 2003 Enterprise and Windows 2003 Datacenter are available for Itanium 2. Microsoft should release a 64-bit version of Windows 2003 for the Opteron soon, but at press time the company hadn't disclosed whether it would release both Enterprise and Datacenter versions for the AMD CPU. Microsoft has released a 64-bit software development kit (SDK) that includes compilers, linkers, debuggers, and performance-optimization guides for both the Itanium 2 and the Opteron.

AMD and Intel have identified high-end databases, business intelligence (BI), supply chain management (SCM), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) as key markets for their 64-bit processors. Software products in these markets, such as Oracle's Oracle9i, IBM's DB2, Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Edition, SAS Institute's SAS 9.0 and SAP's mySAP Supply Chain Management, and SAP R/3 Enterprise Advanced Planner and Optimizer, are available in 64-bit versions for the Itanium 2. Microsoft expects to release a 64-bit version of SQL Server for the Opteron when the application's next release (code-named Yukon) ships late this year. Oracle says it's planning to make future versions of its database product available for the Opteron, but company representatives couldn't provide a timetable for the release.

With the increasing popularity of high-performance computing clusters consisting of many one- and two-processor systems, technical and scientific computing markets have become large consumers of 64-bit servers. Linux and UNIX have been the predominant OSs in these clusters, and support for the lower-priced Opteron processor has been growing in this arena. But 64-bit Windows-based application support for the Opteron has been slow to materialize, partly because the processor has been available for only a few months and partly because a 64-bit version of Windows 2003 for the Opteron wasn't ready when AMD released the processor. In addition, some vendors seem to be waiting for corporate-buyer demand to increase before committing resources to 64-bit Windows-based applications for Opteron.

Itanium 2-based servers can be great solutions for buyers who are ready and able to replace their OSs and applications with 64-bit versions. For those who aren't ready to make the move to 64-bit software, the Opteron provides impressive performance now in a 32-bit environment, while letting you upgrade to 64-bit software later. After upgrading your OS, you'll be able to consolidate your mission-critical 32-bit and 64-bit applications on an Opteron-based server.

Server Availability
All first-tier server vendors and several small vendors have introduced Itanium 2–based products ranging from 2 to 64 processors. IBM is the only tier-one vendor that has announced an Opteron-based offering at press time, but several small vendors have introduced Opteron-based servers, primarily one-, two-, and four-processor systems. Larger vendors seem unready to ramp up systems based on the Opteron because it's AMD's first server processor and corporate buyers might be slow to adopt products based on the new chip.

The scarcity of 8-way and larger Opteron-based servers is due in part to the processor's recent introduction. One- and two-processor Opteron motherboards are widely available, but larger system designs require much longer development cycles. To bring Opteron-based servers to market more quickly, AMD has joined forces with Celestica to design, build, and test 2-way and 4-way Opteron server designs for system vendors, Value Added Resellers (VARs), and systems integrators. Let's look at a variety of server offerings based on both AMD and Intel 64-bit processors.

Unisys
Unisys focuses on high-end offerings, and the company's ES7000/400 and ES7000/560 Itanium 2–based servers are appealing solutions for customers who require the highest levels of scalability. For those who need a large server with Itanium 2 processors, Unisys's ES7000/400 Series servers support as many as 32 Itanium 2 processors in two 16-processor partitions, each running its own OS image. You can cluster the two partitions to ensure uptime. If you don't initially need 32 processors, you might want to start with an ES7000/410 (from 4 to 8 processors) or an ES7000/420 (from 8 to 16 processors), then upgrade later to 32 processors in two 16-processor rack-mount chassis that have high-speed interconnects. An ES7000/410 with 4 processors and 4GB of RAM starts at about $63,000; an ES7000/420 with 8 processors and 16GB of RAM starts at about $120,000.

If you can't upgrade all your intended applications, consider the Unisys ES7000/560. This new server supports one Xeon MP partition with as many as 32 processors, two Itanium 2 partitions with as many as 16 processors, and as many as 42 PCI blade servers running 700MHz Pentium III processors. This configuration flexibility lets you implement a three-tier architecture running a combination of 32-bit and 64-bit applications on one server. And you can create additional partitions to isolate applications, if necessary. Like the ES7000/400 series machines, the ES7000/560 uses two interconnected chassis. Prices for an ES7000/560 with a 32-bit partition using 16 Xeon MP processors and 8GB of RAM and a 64-bit partition with 8 Itanium 2 processors and 16GB of RAM start at about $333,000.

The ES7000/400 servers and ES7000/560 use Unisys's Server Sentinel management software to manage the interconnected chassis (and their partitions) as one server. Unisys guarantees that buyers can upgrade the servers to the next-generation Itanium processor when it becomes available.

HP
As the Itanium 2's codeveloper, HP has a lot of time and money invested in this processor, and the company is slowly replacing its PA-RISC systems with Itanium 2–based models. The most impressive of these, the Integrity Superdome server, supports from 2 to 64 1.5GHz Itanium 2 processors and as much as 512GB of RAM. The server, which is based on HP's sx1000 chipset, can be hard-partitioned in four-processor increments, with each partition running 64-bit versions of Windows 2003 Datacenter, HP-UX 11i, or Linux concurrently. According to HP representatives, Superdome buyers will be able to upgrade the server sometime this year to support 128 CPUs. A minimally configured Integrity Superdome server with two Itanium 2 processors and 1GB of RAM in a 16-way cabinet starts at about $242,000, whereas a midlevel configuration with 14 Itanium 2 processors and 1GB of RAM in a 32-processor cabinet sells for about $677,000.

For customers who don't require the Superdome's 64-processor capability, HP offers the Integrity rx7620 and Integrity rx8620, 8- and 16-way Itanium 2 servers, respectively. Like the Superdome, these two models employ HP's sx1000 chipset and offer the Superdome's hard-partitioning and multi-OS capabilities. At press time, HP hadn't finalized pricing for these models, but the company says that a minimally configured rx7620 should sell for about $20,000, and an entry-level–configured rx8620 should sell for about $70,000.

For those with modest needs, HP offers the HP Integrity rx2600, a two-processor Itanium 2 server that supports as much as 24GB of RAM, and the Integrity rx5670, which contains four processors and supports as much as 96GB of RAM. Both servers are based on HP's zx1 core logic chipset. Pricing for entry configurations of the Integrity rx2600 and Integrity rx5670 is about $6000 and $27,000, respectively.

Dell
Rather than introduce a large 64-bit SMP server for database applications or BI functions, Dell has released an Itanium 2—based PowerEdge 3250 dual-processor rack-mounted system designed for high-performance computing clusters in technical and scientific environments. You can configure the PowerEdge 3250 with two 1.3GHz, 1.4GHz, or 1.5GHz Itanium 2 processors; as much as 16GB of RAM; and two hard disks. The server comes with two integrated Gigabit Ethernet adapters, integrated graphics, and three PCI-X expansion slots. Prices for PowerEdge 3250s with two 1.3GHz Itanium 2 processors, 4GB of RAM, and an 18GB Ultra320 SCSI hard disk begin at about $13,500.

IBM
IBM has two Itanium 2 server offerings and a new Opteron-based model. The Itanium 2­based eServer xSeries 455 is a 4U (7") rack-optimized model designed for database-management and BI applications. The other Itanium 2 model, the eServer xSeries 382, and the Opteron offering, the eServer xSeries 325, are 2U (2.5") and 1U (1.75") rack-mount models, respectively, that are designed as elements in high-performance computing clusters for technical and scientific applications.

The four-processor eServer xSeries 455 features an IBM XA-64 core logic chipset that provides advanced capabilities. For example, if you need more than 4 processors, you can attach as many as 3 more eServer xSeries 455 servers to yield a 16-processor configuration that requires only one Windows installation and can be managed as one system. The server also simultaneously writes data to two identical memory cards. If a DIMM's memory errors reach a preset threshold or the module fails completely, the server uses the mirrored memory card until the failed DIMM is replaced. With one 1.3GHz, 3MB L3 cache Itanium 2 processor, 2GB of RAM, and one hard disk, the eServer xSeries 455 sells for about $24,000. With four 1.5GHz, 6MB L3 cache CPUs, 8GB of RAM, and a second hard disk, the server sells for about $62,000.

The eServer xSeries 382 is a dual-processor Itanium 2 server that's based on Intel's 8870 chipset. The server supports as much as 16GB of RAM and two Ultra320 SCSI hard disks. An eServer xSeries 382 server with two 1.5GHz Itanium 2 processors, 6MB of L3 cache, 4GB of RAM, and two disks sells for about $26,500.

The dual-processor Opteron-based eServer xSeries 325 uses the AMD-8000 series core logic chipset and provides capacities and features similar to the eServer xSeries 382 at a lower price. An eServer xSeries 325 configured with two 1.6GHz Opteron processors, two hard disks, and 4GB of RAM sells for about $7700.

NEC
NEC is no stranger to large systems, and the company's Express5800/1000 series servers span a range of business requirements. If your crucial business applications demand high performance or if you're consolidating several servers, NEC's high-end model, the Express5800/1320Xd, might meet your needs. This model supports as many as 32 Itanium 2 processors and 512GB of RAM. For those whose needs are more modest, NEC offers the 8-processor Express5800/1080Xd and 16-processor Express5800/1160Xd models, which support 16GB and 256GB of RAM, respectively.

All three models are based on NEC's core logic chipset, which provides some interesting capabilities. For example, each Express5800/1000 series server arranges its processors into groups of four called cells. You can partition one or more cells for specific applications. If a cell fails, NEC says that the chipset can automatically reconfigure the system and assign a spare cell to take over for the failed cell in less time than Windows Cluster Services can perform a failover. An Express5800/1080Xd or Express5800/1160Xd with eight 1.3GHz Itanium 2 processors and 16GB of RAM starts at about $120,000, and a similarly equipped Express5800/1320Xd starts at about $250,000.

Angstrom Microsystems
If you plan to assemble a high-performance computing cluster, take a look at Angstrom Microsystems' Titan64 blade server. The 1U (1.75") server features two Opteron processors, as much as 16GB of RAM, an Ultra320 SCSI controller, one or two hot-swappable hard disks, and two Gigabit Ethernet adapters. You can install as many as 13 Titan64 servers per enclosure and cable together 10 enclosures for a total of 130 dual-processor nodes. According to a company representative, the Titan64 starts at about $2400 for a configuration with 2GB of RAM and one 36GB hard disk; an enclosure that contains 13 blade servers sells for about $32,000.

RackSaver
RackSaver specializes in high-density servers and offers 1-, 2-, and 4-way Opteron servers. The company's 4-way QuatreX-64, which AMD designed and Celestica builds, is based on the AMD-8000 series chipset. You can outfit the product--which is intended for enterprise databases and edge-of-network applications such as firewalls, VPNs, and Web servers--with 1.4GHz, 1.6GHz, 1.8GHz, or 2GHz Opteron chips and as much as 32GB of RAM. The QuatreX-64 features five PCI-X slots, as many as four hot-swappable hard disks, and a remote management controller. RackSaver claims that the QuatreX-64's management software is functionally equivalent to software from tier-one vendors. An entry-level configuration with two 1.4GHz processors and 2GB of RAM costs about $7500.

For the high-performance computing market, RackSaver also offers 1- and 2-way 1U (1.75") rack-optimized servers with Opteron processors. The RSN-1164/op is available in a 1U (1.75") configuration with one or two processors and as much as 16GB of RAM, a Gigabit Ethernet adapter, and one or two hard disks. An RSN-1164/op 1-way server with 2GB of RAM costs about $2000; 2-way models with 8GB of RAM start at about $5000.

HPC Systems
Like RackSaver, HPC Systems offers an AMD-designed, Celestica-built 4-way server. The starting price for a Model A480 server with four 1.4GHz Opteron CPUs and 16GB of RAM is about $20,000. HPC Systems also offers two dual-processor Opteron-based servers for the high-performance computing market. The Model A102 is a 1U (1.75") rack-optimized server that supports as much as 12GB of RAM and two IDE hard disks and includes a dual-channel Gigabit Ethernet adapter. A Model A102 server with two 1.4GHz Opteron processors, 1GB of RAM, and a 40GB hard disk sells for about $1900.

HPC Systems markets its other dual-processor server, the Model A170, as a "one-half U server." Actually, the Model A170 is 1U high (1.75") but only half as deep as most 1U rack-optimized servers, so you can install two units back to back in a rack. The Model A170 server supports 12GB of RAM, a dual-channel Gigabit Ethernet adapter, and one hard disk. This configuration costs about $1800.

The 64-Bit Future
In its third iteration, the Itanium 2 is maturing; the processor's 64-bit performance rivals leading RISC chips and it's gaining traction with hardware and software vendors. The Opteron is at a very early stage in its product cycle. Although the processor has demonstrated its prowess with 32-bit software, we'll need more time to assess its 64-bit performance with Windows applications. A year from now, 64-bit enterprise database products will be available for the Opteron, but 2 years or more might pass before the processor achieves the hardware and 64-bit software support that the Itanium 2 enjoys today. How quickly that support appears will depend on how quickly IT buyers adopt Opteron-based servers for their 32-bit applications.

Although buyers who need 64-bit computing today have a lot of servers to choose from, 64-bit application support isn't yet complete. If you need 64-bit performance and your key applications are available in 64-bit versions, I suggest taking advantage of the major vendors' server-evaluation sites to determine whether the performance benefits justify the costs and time associated with a migration.



Contact the Vendors
ES7000/410, ES7000/420, ES7000/560
Unisys * 585-742-6780, ext. 731
http://www.unisys.com

ESERVER XSERIES 325, ESERVER XSERIES 382,
ESERVER XSERIES 455

IBM * 888-426-4968
http://www.ibm.com

EXPRESS5800/1080XD, EXPRESS5800/1160XD,
EXPRESS5800/1320XD

NEC * 800-338-9549
http://www.nec.com

INTEGRITY RX2600, INTEGRITY RX5670,
INTEGRITY RX7620, INTEGRITY RX8620, INTEGRITY SUPERDOME

HP * 650-857-1501
http://www.hp.com

MODEL A480, MODEL A170, MODEL A102
HPC Systems * 408-719-8799
http://www.hpcsystems.com

POWEREDGE 3250
Dell * 800-999-3355
http://www.dell.com

QUATREX-64, RSN-1164/OP
RackSaver * 858-874-3800
http://www.racksaver.com

TITAN64
Angstrom Microsystems * 617-695-0137
http://www.angstrom.com