Multi-core processors fuel virtualization services

As Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. hit the market with multi-core processors, channel players view the deluge as a plus for server virtualization and related service opportunities.

As Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) hit the market with multi-core processors, channel players view the deluge as a plus for server virtualization and related service opportunities.

In April, AMD announced general availability of its quad-core Opteron processors. Dell now offers five server platforms using AMD's quad-core offering, and Hewlett-Packard Co.'s ProLiant G5 line employs the chip. Intel, meanwhile, unveiled quad-core processors for servers in January 2007, and in March of this year introduced low-voltage, 45-nanometer quad-core processors, which the company said reduce data center power consumption.

Multi-core processors, which place two or more computing cores on the same processor, promise to boost performance and efficiency.

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Multi-core processor benefits and trends

Distributors and solutions providers view multi-core processor technology as a boon for the growing practice of virtualization. Server virtualization creates multiple "virtual machines" on a single hardware device, permitting multiple operating systems and applications to run. The technique enables server consolidation, as virtual machines take the place of their physical counterparts.

"Virtualization used to be a mainframe technology, and now it is starting to permeate the wider spectrum, down to the Intel quad-core type of technologies," said Tony Madden, senior vice president and general manager of specialty distributor Avnet Technology Solutions' IBM Solutions group.

"The ability to actually execute [server virtualization] across a much wider base and to a broader set of customers represents a huge opportunity for the channel," he added.

Essentially, multi-core processors let solution providers offer customers more bang for their virtualization buck.

"The more CPUs that are available for the customer to use, the more virtual machines you can allocate to the physical hardware," noted Jerome Cheng, a technical specialist with CDW-Government, the public sector arm of CDW Inc.

Some solution providers harness multi-core technology in their managed services operations. That's the case for Alteritech, a subsidiary of Acumen Solutions that hosts customers' virtual machines in its data center.

"We run a large data center with quite a few virtual host servers, and all of those are using quad-cores -- primarily because we can put so many virtual machines on a server now," said Rick Brown, director of Alteritech.

How many more virtual machines can organizations expect to run on the current crop of quad-core servers? Brown said increases of 70% to 80% are possible when moving from dual-core to quad-core technology. But the degree of scalability varies with the type of virtual machine. An I/O-intensive database server "will not see such an increase in the number of virtual machines," Brown noted.

Multi-core also supports green computing initiatives, since adopters can increase server density without necessarily also boosting power and cooling capacity requirements. Brown said the low-power version of Intel's quad-core line works well for virtualization and other uses.

Cheng said AMD's newly released quad-core processor boosts performance per watt.

"AMD has always been very efficient with their processors," he said. Quad-core processors "will help reduce power consumption while increasing performance," he said.

AMD also targets virtualization. The company in April reported that VMware completed qualification of quad-core Opteron processors for use in VMware ESX and ESXi hypervisor deployments.

One potential downside for partners still relying on product sales margins is they may sell fewer units in some instances. But partners say services opportunities make up for any shortfall there.

CDW-Government's Cheng said the company has seen that multi-core servers with virtualization do tend to curb hardware server sales. On the other hand, such deployments increase the need to implement a shared storage device such as an iSCSI or Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN), he said.

And, in some cases, Cheng said, "customers budget for additional hardware at remote locations to minimize downtime in case of an unexpected outage."

Multi-core processors: A plus for apps?

While multi-core propels virtualization and green computing, the impact on software is subject to discussion. Chipmakers view the technology as a bonus for multithreaded software applications, which can run multiple jobs simultaneously. But some observers say it will take time for software to catch up with hardware developments.

Multithreaded programming has been around for a while, but compilers and other development tools need to be created so developers can write applications that make better use of multiple cores, Brown said.

"Hardware is always significantly ahead of the game," Cheng added. "Typically, software is going to be the limiting factor of how much of the processing power is going to be used."

That said, Dominic Sartorio, senior director of product management at SpikeSource Inc., said many independent software vendors (ISVs) already offer multithreaded applications. In April, the company, which provides an automated platform for assembling, testing and packaging software, launched a testing program that will certify applications as taking advantage of Intel's multi-core technology.

Intel selected SpikeSource's platform to power the service, called the Intel Certified Solutions Program. Over time, the program will test software against several criteria, but multi-core will be the first to roll out.

"The test consists of a validation that applications are multithreaded and are, in fact, running concurrently and … taking advantage of multiple cores in parallel," Sartorio said.

An early adopter program is underway, and Sartorio expects 200 ISVs to participate in the program by mid-August.

Compiere Inc. counts itself among the companies that have rewritten their products over the years to be multithreaded. Compiere provides opens source enterprise resource management (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software. Gary Wu, director of engineering, said most elements of the Compiere technology stack can utilize multi-core technology.

At the back end of the stack, for example, relational database managers such as Oracle scale to the number of cores or processors on a given machine, Wu said. On the front end, Compiere offers a Java Swing client and an Ajax Web client. The former is multithread-enabled, but the Ajax Web client can't take advantage of multithreading today, Wu said. As to multithreading, that client is "at the mercy of the browser vendors and how they implement the JavaScript runtime environment," he noted.

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