These chips can do everything


Hardware performance is about much more than clock speed and raw processing power these days, thanks to embedded functions that are helping do things from improving security to virtualizing servers.

Chip makers, including Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), are ushering in a new era in processor design by adding hardware-enabled features to their wares. The goal is to either replace functions that have traditionally been done via software or, more often, significantly improve the operation of the software.

As an added bonus, those hardware-assisted processor functions improve overall system performance without increasing the heat generated, the vendors claim, allowing corporations to keep a lid on utility costs and reduce the need for exotic cooling strategies.

“This is something that has been coming for a long time,” says Rick Sturm, president at Enterprise Management Associates. “It’s the natural course of evolution, and an affordable and rational thing to do to put some of this functionality down on the chip level.”

As computer platforms and overall system management increase in complexity, IT professionals are demanding that systems have 100 percent availability, subsecond response times and instant problem resolution, Sturm says. Those goals are no longer strictly the purview of any one area — silicon, software or human intervention — but are now being addressed by taking advantage of advances on all fronts.

“IT is strangling” from the costs of operations, Sturm says. “We’re spending so much money on management that it is preventing us from innovating and addressing the needs of business.”

Early customers

The Charlotte Observer, North Carolina’s largest daily newspaper, in December began migrating some of the publication’s most important applications to a virtualized environment.

The paper is moving its Oracle-based circulation system database to servers that have Intel’s new quad-core Xeon processors with baked-in, hardware-enabled virtualization technology. Also being placed on these same virtualized servers is the paper’s editorial content workflow system.

Geoff Shorter, IT infrastructure manager at The Observer, says he found out during his testing phase how these new servers can run virtualization in near-native speeds. The database used for the test prepares subscription renewal notices and determines which accounts need to billed, how much to bill and for what period of time.

Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer for virtualization software provider Virtual Iron, says virtualization often results in overall hardware performance penalties, ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent. But when using chip-enabled virtualization, that penalty can drop to 4 percent or less.

That’s indeed what Shorter’s group found. “Virtual Iron will tell you their overhead is between 1 percent and 3 percent, but a 3 percent difference on a 10-minute [database run] is not noticeable,” Shorter says. “It’s just like native. The driving force for going to a virtualization strategy was cost, but we’ve tested it, and performance is also a driving factor.”

Shorter estimates he can run seven to 12 virtual servers per single-core processor node on existing systems. As the newspaper transitions to quad-core systems over the next year, he expects to be able to support around 30 virtual servers per physical node. Jason Lochhead, principle architect at managed hosting provider Data Return LLC, says the company is already seeing benefits from hardware-assisted virtualization within the server infrastructure it offers its customers.

A year ago, Data Return introduced its Infinistructure utility computing platform intended to allow customers to maximize server utilization and more economically create on-demand compute resources through the use of server virtualization. Using Hewlett-Packard servers based on AMD Opteron processors, Data Return has been able to create hundreds of virtual server instances for customers within its data centers in Dallas and Pleasanton, Calif.

“We don’t have as much wasted hardware capacity and have lowered power and cooling bills by consolidating these physical servers with the use of virtualized machines,” Lochhead says. “It’s much cheaper, particularly when you’re talking about adding servers for redundancy rather than performance.”

The hardware-assisted virtualization capability within the AMD Opteron processors allows Data Return to run many more varieties of operating systems in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions on the same base hardware, he says. In the future, additional hardware-assisted abilities within Opteron are expected to include memory translation and virtualized access to I/O devices, he says.

“We’re enthusiastic about it,” Lochhead says. “When we were first going down this road, virtualization was pretty new, and customers were a little leery of accepting it. But when someone like AMD comes out and says they are putting these technologies into hardware, it’s a vote of confidence.”

What the future holds

Michael Cote, an analyst at RedMonk, says adding hardware-assisted functions to replace or augment software capabilities will continue to increase this year and next, as mainstream microprocessor manufacturers attempt to differentiate their product lines.

In addition, Cote says, “These capabilities will continue to increase as more IT professionals gain a greater understanding of what is available and the potential benefits.”

In most cases, rather than fully replacing traditional systems management software applications within a corporation, the new hardware-assisted capabilities will make that software operate more efficiently. Kevin Unbedacht, senior platforms strategist at Altiris, a provider of IT asset management software and services, says that Intel’s new Active Management Technology (AMT) is a good example.

Altiris’ software has traditionally been able to analyze only those systems that are on and running an operating system. If a system is off, or not operating properly, the Altiris software can’t collect a full inventory analysis.

By using the AMT capability embedded within the chip set of VPro systems, however, the Altiris tracking and inventory software can detect systems even when they are off or not operating properly.

In addition, flash memory inside the VPro chip set stores system information each time the PC is booted, providing up-to-date information on the system status. The out-of-band alerts enabled by AMT can allow an IT department to make a single dispatch call, instead of the two that have been traditionally required for analysis and repair, he sa.

The end result, Unbedacht says, is a hardware/software combo that can proactively monitor IT infrastructure instead of reacting only when something is wrong.

In addition, having basic management capabilities hardwired into silicon will make it simpler for new entrepreneurial systems management companies to add product offerings that can rapidly be adopted by IT professionals and integrated in enterprise-level applications, RedMonk’s Cote says.

For its part, Intel calls its effort Embedded IT, and is attacking the problem with a variety of new or planned capabilities. Competitor AMD has similar efforts within its Trinity and Torrenza programs.

Measuring success: Not so fast

The biggest boost to processor performance in the last two years has been the move to multicore processors. The migration from single-core to

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