Why silicon in the data center has become interesting again

Open-source hardware at work in Facebook's data center in Prineville, Oregon

Above: Open-source hardware at work in Facebook's data center in Prineville, Oregon

Image Credit: Jolie O'Dell/VentureBeat

After more than a decade, the battle for the server silicon and control of the data center is about to re-ignite again. Intel may have dominated the data center since the 1990s, but with players such as ARM Holdings powering the chips in nearly every mobile device and established companies like IBM still pulling tricks out of their hats, the data center is ripe for upheaval.

The Intel Ecosystem

Intel accounts for more than 80 percent of server shipments and more than two thirds of server revenue. One of the ways the company solidified its dominance was by building a powerful ecosystem around the x86 line of microprocessors.

In the early 1990s, Intel capitalized from the new breed of client-side server applications that replaced dumb terminals with intelligent, Windows/Intel-based client machines. A new breed of RISC-based servers ran their respective version of UNIX and served as the back-end.

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In addition to benefiting from the new client-server architecture, Intel wisely worked with Microsoft’s server groups, such as NT and SQLServer. An army of Microsoft ISVs started to deploy Intel’s apps, not only on Windows/Intel client machines, but also on Windows NT Intel servers (at the time two different operating systems).

Intel saw real growth at the tail end of the 1990s. This movement in turn fueled the exponential growth of companies such as Compaq and Dell, which added rack mounted, Intel-based servers running Windows to their data centers. This did not go unnoticed by hardware manufacturers such as HP, DEC, DG, and IBM, and resulted in many of them eventually offering “low-end” Intel-based servers.

As Windows became more scalable and garnered a significant portion of the server-side OS market, the cost burden became clear. With the advent of Linux, Intel was savvy enough to make sure that Linux, in addition to Windows, was optimized for their chipset. This resulted in Intel winning, regardless of which OS the customer picked.

The Evolution of the Data Center

Today, the Intel x86 data center ecosystem continues to be very strong. Premier server manufacturers such as IBM and HP remain on board. VMware brought best-in-class virtualization to x86, and Oracle made Linux/x86 a first-class citizen for Oracle Database. In addition, x86 has many original design manufacturers and a strong software ecosystem that covers many tools, operating systems, databases and a broad ISV eco-system.

None of this, however, solidifies Intel’s position as a market leader. There are a number of significant changes happening that could change the data center as we know it:

1. Data center workloads are shifting toward web, mobile, and big data

These scale-out workloads serve millions of mobile devices and/or execute analytics across a large number of servers. In this environment, shared-nothing, parallel execution is the norm, rather than the scale-up workloads of the large traditional database or ERP systems. Workloads are less impacted by raw processing speed than by input/output (e.g. network and filesystem) and memory. The fastest processors won’t necessarily win the total cost of ownership (TCO) game. There are many other factors, such as power consumption, cooling requirements and rack density, which now become a bigger part of the TCO equation. These factors will likely fuel broader adoption of micro servers.

2. Easy movement between architectures

In the past, optimized x86 C/C++ applications on Windows and Linux weren’t typically supported by other architectures. In order to serve the web and mobile workload, users have shifted towards Platforms-as-a-Service (PaaS). These are dominated by dynamic languages such as PHP, and abstract the application code from the underlying CPU architecture. When developers use PaaS environments, they aren’t exposed to the underlying architecture. As long as their favorite dynamic language works well, they can deploy their platform-independent application code as-is. This shift makes the cost of moving between architectures almost negligible.

3. A new set of challengers

A number of new and old players are reacting quickly and decisively, not only to survive but also to seize the opportunity to expand their market position in this ever-shifting landscape. ARM Holdings licenses its chip architecture to companies from NVidia to Apple to Google’s Android, making ARM technology nearly ubiquitous in the mobile market — a space where Intel hasn’t yet been able to get a significant foothold. The success of Linux-based ARM on mobile devices has significantly strengthened the tool chain and ecosystem around ARM architecture. While the nature of this environment is not identical to a server environment, the investments and focus on optimizing Linux/ARM could also help fuel ARM’s eventual success in the data center.

IBM has also recently thrown its hat in the ring by launching the OpenPOWER Consortium, enabling companies, which currently include Google and NVidia, to license IBM’s Power Microprocessor architecture. With this announcement, IBM hopes to drive accelerated Power adoption in the future datacenter and cloud.

Don’t ignore Intel

Still, anyone who thinks Intel is complacent is wrong. Intel is making significant investments in delivering low-power Intel Atom chips for the datacenter. While originally conceived to combat ARM on the mobile device, Intel has now invested in Intel Atom product families that leverage lower-power capabilities in the datacenter.

During recent testing of our own Zend Server on the HP Moonshot System, which supports both Intel Atom and ARM architectures, we were positively surprised at the performance we were getting out of both the Intel Atom and the ARM servers. Based on the results we saw, we truly believe that these lower-power chips may disrupt the datacenter and deliver a better TCO for workloads like PHP than the faster Intel Xeon processors.

As long as they execute well and do not let ARM beat them on price/performance, the strong x86-based ecosystem continues to give Intel an advantage. But given the surprising performance we saw out of ARM, the changes in data center economics and with players such as IBM still able to surprise, the next few years in the datacenter will be quite exciting.

Game on!

P.S. – We’d love feedback from people who have considered either ARM or Intel Atom based micro-servers for their Web workloads. You can email me at andi at zend youknowwhat.

Andi Gutmans is CEO and co-founder of Zend Technologies. Founded in 1999, Zend was instrumental in establishing PHP. Today, Zend helps organizations create and implement back-end services for mobile and web applications. Zend Server and Zend Studio are deployed at more than 40,000 companies worldwide.

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