AUSTIN, Texas Newisys, based here, is betting that AMD has chosen wisely in creating a line of 64-bit processors compatible with the ubiquitous 32-bit X86 architecture. AMD, which has minimal market share in the commercial server segment, needs server vendors like Newisys and its battle-hardened team of ex-IBMers that are willing to risk adoption of Opteron, AMD's first serious foray into server silicon.
Newisys co-founder Phil Hester, who managed computer development programs at IBM Corp. here for two decades, keeps a book about Egyptian mythology on his desk. Isis, the goddess of fertility, has spawned Khepri, the god of the sunrise and the name of the company's two-way server module, and Sobek, a four-way server. Hester said about two-thirds of the engineers at 120-person Newisys are working on a high-end system that would extend the product line to as many as 32 Opteron processors.
The Newisys strategy is to remain behind the scenes, creating Opteron-based systems that will be sold to computer vendors, such as Dell and IBM, that would market them under their own brand names to commercial customers. Hester argues that the top computer companies will turn to Newisys for their Opteron-based products because they are strapped for engineers and need to maintain relationships with Intel.
Opteron is AMD's name for the server versions of the Hammer architecture; the desktop K8 silicon from AMD will still use the Athlon name even as AMD jumps to its 64-bit architecture. The Newisys prototype systems are based on early Opteron samples; the finished Opterons are not expected to ship until the first half of next year. (Next month, AMD is expected to provide more public data about Opteron, which can include as many as three HyperTransport I/O modules on-chip for direct logical connections to other Opterons.)
Beyond its 64-bit instructions and HyperTransport links, Opteron is groundbreaking in that the memory controller is on-chip, supporting double-data-rate DRAM.
Hester, who once worked as the chief technology officer for IBM's PC company, said he became acquainted with AMD when IBM was investigating whether to use AMD silicon in its Aptiva line of desktops.
"What AMD has done is rethink the whole idea of the interfaces on the processor, getting away from the shared bus architectures. By adding both the I/O and the memory controllers to the processor silicon, Newisys can easily scale these systems up to challenge the major RISC-based server vendors," Hester said.
"AMD has done a credible job" with the Opteron, said analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight64. In particular, Brookwood said, the built-in memory controller will improve system performance; memory fetches will no longer need to travel through a north bridge on the chip set, a trek that can take up to 150 nanoseconds.
Opteron-based servers "will have much better latency characteristics than competing systems, and the HyperTransport links will provide advantages as well," said Brookwood. Because two-, four- and eight-way systems can be created around the HyperTransport links without need for glue logic between the processors, Brookwood said, Opteron "may be a better deal" than servers based on Xeon 32-bit processors."
By putting so much of its clout behind Itanium, Intel may have painted itself into a corner, Brookwood said. While the Itanium processor architecture is a "ground up" 64-bit design, it achieves IA-32 compatibility by means of emulation and is likely to be slower than Opteron at running existing 32-bit applications. As a hedge, Intel is said to have its Yamhill processor design (which Intel has never publicly acknowledged) in the works, which would extend the X86 architecture to the 64-bit arena.
But Brookwood said he remains doubtful that Intel will bring Yamhill to market.
"I believe Yamhill is back in the bottle and will stay there," he said. "If Intel were to go ahead with a Yamhill endorsement, it would take a lot of the wind out of the sails of Itanium2, and remember that companies such as Hewlett-Packard have bet the farm on Itanium. Over the past month or two, there are signs that Yamhill is unlikely to see the light of day."
That would leave the door open for Opteron, and companies like Newisys, to gain market share in the part of the market now dominated by Xeon silicon.
"AMD has to prove itself in the space now dominated by P3 and P4 processors; Intel already has 90 percent of the market in that sector," Brookwood said. "Intel has to go up against PA-RISC, Sparc and the Power processors from IBM and gain more sales at the high end. That would more than offset their loss at the low end" to AMD's Opteron.
Jeff Hewitt, a systems analyst at Gartner Dataquest, said he believes it will take time before 64-bit servers gain traction in the commercial "industry-standard" server marketplace. "The question about 64-bit systems is, Where are they needed? Thirty-two bit systems meet the needs of most commercial users, so AMD and Newisys have to show a compelling performance advantage that will allow customers either to make more money or to save more money," Hewitt said.
Hester said the Web server market is a big opportunity for 64-bit systems, largely because of the larger memory-address space. Two or three years ago the 4-Gbyte limit on 32-bit memory addressing was not of much concern, because 4 Gbytes of DRAM were costly. The initial Newisys systems support 16 Gbytes of main memory. Over the next year to 18 months, Web servers will be able to ship with enough DRAM to put significant chunks of the Internet right in RAM.
"For I/O-bound computing applications, the ability to cache the disk information is a big advantage," Hester said.
Web servers running Apache, the open-source Web server application, or Microsoft's Web server product IIS are prime targets for low-cost 64-bit servers. "Just for Web servers, 64 bits gives those users a 3x to 4x speed improvement," Hester said. "And serious database applications like Oracle and DB2 from IBM will see real speed increases as well.
Also, the per-processor memory bandwidth of 5 Gbytes/second is at-tractive to high-performance computer users, such as engineers running EDA applications, he said. "The CPU allows us to scale bandwidth much more efficiently than on a shared bus architecture. We can have 10 Gbytes of bandwidth on a two-way system and 20 Gbytes on a four-way system. Those are great numbers for a technical computer user."
Jack Steeg, director of sales and marketing at Newisys, said many companies will inch their way into 64-bit computing and may turn to Newisys systems to preserve their 32-bit applications while laying a road map for 64-bit computing.
Ed Ellet, an AMD marketing vice president, said he believes IT managers will buy one company's platform but run, for example, five server modules in 64-bit mode and 25 or so more in 32-bit mode. "Companies have an enormous number of hours of experience with 32-bit applications. Ultimately they may move to 64-bit computing, but it will be a conversion that will take time."
Ellet estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the server market is served by two-way systems, while another 10 to 15 percent requires four- and eight-way systems. "Because of HyperTransport, we can put two Hammers together without glue logic, and up to four-way and eight-way systems as well," he said. "Beyond eight-way, AMD is working on the appropriate chip set."
Newisys itself is developing high-end server chip set silicon that will serve up to 32 processor systems.
Since Newisys' founding in the summer of 2000, its engineers have been working to differentiate its systems from the "white-box" servers that run simple server applications, instead creating systems that appeal to large commercial customers. A processor like the Motorola 855T PowerPC serves as a system controller, providing programmable power management and other functions.
The Newisys systems are designed to consume less than 100 watts the comfort level for managers of "thermally constrained" data centers, Hester said. The systems have "hooks to measure the load dynamically," he said, "so that as the workload drops by 10 or 50 times, say at night, we can cut down to 10 W or less in static mode."
Hester would not comment on potential or actual customers, although he said IBM gave him its blessing to leave to start Newisys. He smiled when asked whether IBM will buy Newisys products.
Dell is another obvious target. Steeg and others at the startup hail from Dell.
Dell recently discontinued its first-generation Itanium-based servers because of a lack of customer interest. It is expected to field an Itanium2-based line when commercial chip sets for that processor become available, Brookwood said.