It is generally accepted as common knowledge that the high-end RISC server vendors—IBM and Oracle—have been bleeding market share in favor of high-end Intel Xeon based servers. Indeed, the RISC market accounts for about 150k units while the x86 market has almost 10 million servers. About 5% of those 10 million units are high-end x86 servers, so the Xeon E7 server volume is probably only 2-4 times the size of the whole RISC market. Still, that tiny amount of RISC servers represents about 50% of the server market revenues.

But the RISC vendors have finally woken up. IBM has several Power7+ based servers that are more or less price competitive with the Xeon E7. Sun/Oracle's server CPUs have been lagging severely in performance. The UltraSPARC T1 and T2 for example were pretty innovative but only performed well in a very small niche of the market, while offering almost ridicously low performance in any application (HPC, BI, ERP ) that needed decent per-thread performance.

Quite surprisingly, Oracle has been extremely aggressive the past few years. The "S3" core of the octal-core SPARC T4 launched at the end of 2011 was finally a competitive server core. Compared to the quad-issue Westmere core inside the contemporary Xeon E7 , it was still a simple core, but gone were the single-issue in-order designs of the T1 and T2 at laughably low clock speeds. No, instead, the SUN server chip received a boost to an out-of-order dual-issue chip at pretty decent 3GHz clocks. Each core could support eight threads but also execute two threads simultaneously. Last year, the Sparc-T5, an improved T4, had twice as many cores at 20% higher clocks.

As usual, the published benchmarks are very vague and are only available for the top models, the TDP is unknown, and the best performing systems come with astronomic price tags ($950,000 for two servers, some networking, and storage... really?). In a nutshell, every effort is made to ensure you cannot compare these with the servers of "Big Blue" or the x86 competition. Even Oracle's "technical deep dive" seems to be written mostly to please the marketing people out there. A question like "Does the SPARC T5 also support both single-threaded and multi-threaded applications?" must sound particularly hilarious to our technically astute readers.

Oracle's nebulous marketing to justify some of the outrageous prices has not changed, but make no mistake: something is brewing among the RISC vendors. SUN/Oracle is no longer the performance weakling in the server market, some IBM Power systems are priced quite reasonably, and the Intel Xeon E7—still based on the outdated Westmere Core—is starting to show its age. Not surprisingly, it's time for a "tick-tock" update of the Xeon E7. The new Xeon E7 48xx v2 is baked in a better process (22nm vs 32nm) and comes with 2012's "Ivy Bridge" core, enhanced for server/IT markets to become "Ivy Bridge EX".

Meet the New Xeon E7 v2
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  • Brutalizer - Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - link

    Clusters can not replace SMP servers. Clusters can not run SMP workloads.
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, February 25, 2014 - link

    I'm sorry, but it is considered best practice to run databases in pairs for redundancy. For example, here is an Oracle page explaining how clustering is used to maintain high availability:

    Other databases like MySQL and MS SQL Server have similar offerings.

    There is a reason why big hardware like this is purchased in pair or sets of three.
  • EmmR - Friday, March 14, 2014 - link

    Kevin G. you are actually correct. We are in the process for comparing performance of Power7+ vs Xeon v2 for SAP batch workload and we got pretty much the same arguments from our AIX guys as Brutalizer mentionned.

    We are using real batch jobs rather than an synthetic benchmark and we set up each system to compare core-for-core, down to running a memory defrag on the Power system to make sure memory access is a good as possible. The only thing we could not fix is that in terms of network access, the Intel system was handicapped.

    What we are seeing is that we can tune the Intel system to basically get similar performance (< 5% difference of total runtime) than from the Power7+ system (P780). This was quite unexpected but it's an illustration of how far Intel and the hardware vendors building servers/blades based on those CPUs have come.
  • Kevin G - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Looking at the Xeon E7 V2's right now is wise since they're just hitting market and the core infrastructure is expected to last three generations. It wouldn't surprise me if you can take a base system today using memory daughter cards and eventually upgrade it to Broadwell-EX and more DDR4 memory by the end of the product life cycle. This infrastructure is going to be around for awhile.

    POWER7+ on the other hand is going to be replaced by the POWER8 later this year. I'd expect it to perform better than the POWER7+ though how much will have to wait for the benchmarks after it is released. There is always going to be something faster/better/cheaper coming down the road in the computing world. Occasionally waiting makes sense due to generational changes like this. Intel and IBM tend to leap frog each other and it is IBM's turn to jump.

    Ultimately if you gotta sign the check next week, I'd opt for the Xeon but if you can hold off a few months, I'd see what the POWER8 brings.
  • EmmR - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    Power8 will be interesting to look at, but based on current data it will have to yield a pretty impressive performance boost over Power7+ (and Xeon v2) in order to be competitive on a performance per dollar spent.
  • Kevin G - Monday, March 17, 2014 - link

    IBM is claiming two to three times the throughput over POWER7+. Most of that gain isn't hard to see where it comes from: increasing the core count from 8 to 12. That change alone will put it ahead of the Xeon E7 v2's in terms of raw performance. Minor IPC and clock speed increases are expected too. The increase from 4 way to 8 way SMT will help some workloads, though it could also hurt others (IBM does support dynamic changes in SMT so this is straightforward to tune). The rest will likely come from system level changes like lower memory access times thanks to the L4 cache on the serial-to-parallel memory buffer and more bandwidth all around. What really interests me is that IBM is finally dropping the GX bus they introduced for coherency in the POWER4. What the POWER8 does is encapsulates coherency over a PCIe physical link. It'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

    As you may suspect, the cost of this performance may be rather high. We'll have to see when IBM formally launches systems.
  • amilayajr - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    I think Brutalizer is saying that, this new Xeon CPU is pretty much for targeted market. Unix since then has been the backbone of the internet, Intel as much as they can they want to cover the general area of server market. Sure it's a nice CPU, but as reliability goes, I would rather use a slower system but reliable in terms of calculations. I would still give intel the thumbs up for trying something new or updating the cpu. As for replacing unix servers for large database enterprise servers, probably not in a long time for intel. I would say to intel to leave on the real experts on this area that just focuses on these market. Intel is just covering their turf for smaller scale server market.
  • Kevin G - Thursday, March 6, 2014 - link

    The x86 servers have caught up in RAS features. High end features like hot memory add/remove are available on select systems. (Got a bad DIMM? Replace it while the systems is running.) Processor add/remove on a running system is also possible on newer systems but requires some system level support (though I'm not immediately familiar with a system offering it.) In most cases with the base line RAS features, Xeons are more than good enough for the job. Hardware lockstep is also an option on select systems.

    Uses for ultra high end features like two bit error correction for memory, RAID5-like parity across memory channels, and hot processor add/remove are a very narrow niche. Miscellaneous features like instruction replay don't actually add much in terms of RAS (replay on Itanium is used mainly to fill up unused instruction slots in its VLIW architecture, where as lock step would catch a similar error in all cases). Really, the main reason to go with Unix is on the software side, not the hardware side anymore.
  • djscrew - Wednesday, March 12, 2014 - link

    "Sound like we are solving a problem with hardware instead of being innovative in software."

    that doesn't happen... ever... ;)
  • mapesdhs - Sunday, February 23, 2014 - link

    Brutalizer writes;
    "Some examples of Scale-out servers (clusters) are all servers on the Top-500 supercomputer list. Other examples are SGI Altix / UV2000 servers or the ScaleMP server, they have 10,000s of cores and 64 TB RAM or more, i.e. cluster. Sure, they run a single unified Linux kernel image - but they are still clusters. ..."

    Re the UV, that's not true at all. The UV is a shared memory system with a hardware MPI
    implentation. It can scale codes well beyond just a few dozen sockets. Indeed, some key
    work going on atm is how to scale relevant codes beyond 512 CPUs, not just 32 or 64.
    The Cosmos installation is one such example. Calling a UV a cluster is just plain wrong.
    Its shared memory architecture means it can handle very large datasets (hundreds of
    GB) and extremely demanding I/O workloads; no conventional 'cluster' can do that.


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