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By | Timothy Prickett Morgan 19th February 2009 19:25

Unisys threatens Itanium with death

Intel chip no Monster

The Itanium server chip from Intel needs all the allies it can get these days, particularly after the latest in a string of delays for the quad-core "Tukwila" chip. But it doesn't look like Intel can count on Unisys to be a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Tukwila when it does get out the door.

Unisys is touting a new TPC-H data warehousing benchmark result for its ES7600R "Monster Xeon" server, which is based on Intel's "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 processors and which was co-developed with Japanese server partner NEC. The Monster Xeon box came to market last fall, and the handwriting was on the wall for the ES7000/one servers that used Itanium cell boards as soon as this box launched.

The reason is that the Dunnington-based machine offers compelling performance and price/performance advantages over Itanium boxes from Unisys, and more importantly, Xeon boxes can now scale as far as most Itanium boxes. As the core counts and raw performance have risen on the Xeon side of the Unisys house (and indeed, among other server makers as well, who sell Itanium or RISC/Unix boxes), Itanium server sales have been declining at Unisys.

"Our customers have voted with their feet and their wallets," explains Colin Lacey, vice president of systems and storage at the Systems and Technology group at Unisys. "In the past twelve months especially, we have seen a dramatic shift from Itanium to Xeon."

Unisys did not start out selling Itanium-based ES7000 servers, and in fact, Unisys had timed the launch of the original ES7000 launch in 2000 to the debut of Microsoft's Windows Server 2000 Datacenter Edition and was perfectly happy to just sell boxes based on 32-bit Xeons. (That first Datacenter Edition was, of course, a year late coming to market and messed up the ES7000 launch). Unisys bet that 32-bit Xeon chips and Datacenter Edition would be enough to take on the high-end Unix market at the time.

But machines needed more main memory than 32-bit Xeon chips could offer. But when some customers running big SQL Server workloads started asking for more memory and processor scalability, Unisys added a line of Itanium-based machines (in late 2001). Of course, the company then enthusiastically supported the 64-bit versions of Intel's Xeon MP processors when they became available. Then it launched the unified Xeon-Itanium ES7000/one line in 2006. Company executives said at the time that many customers still wanted Itanium servers and that demand was on the rise.

The ES7000/one boxes, like the original ES7000s, are based on a four-socket cell board (Unisys calls its variant of the NUMA-SMP hybrid architecture Cellular MultiProcessing) for Xeon and Itanium chips. The second-generation ES7000s actually put eight sockets on a board and pushed scalability up to 32 cores in a single system image. The current iteration of the ES7000/one machines support single-core "Madison" and dual-core "Montecito" and "Montvale" Itanium processors as well as the "Tigerton" Xeon MP processors, which are sold as the 7300 series.

The Monster Xeon box - which uses the four-core and six-core Dunnington Xeon 7400 series chips and spans up to four cell boards in a single image (for a total of 64 or 96 cores) - does not offer Itanium-based boards. Because Tukwila uses a different socket and the QuickPath Interconnect, it requires Unisys to make or acquire a new Itanium chipset. The Dunnington machines are still based on the old front side bus architecture used with Xeons since the dawn of time.

Steep Sales Drop

The drop off in Itanium sales at Unisys has been pretty steep, so you can understand Lacey's reluctance to say that Unisys has no plans to add Tukwila support to the Monster Xeon or any other ES7000 variant. Several years ago, Itanium-based ES7000s accounted for about 25 per cent of overall ES7000 revenues, says Lacey. But a few years ago, as multicore Xeons with 64-bit memory extensions were available and offered comparable performance and memory capacity to Itaniums (which have always had 64-bit memory), that percentage dropped to the teens. And now, Lacey says, it is down into the single digits.

Hence this statement: "We're really focusing all of our efforts as we move forward on the Xeon platform." When pressed harder about Unisys' plans for Tukwila Itaniums, this is what Lacey had to say: "We don't typically comment on future roadmaps. We're not talking about that right now. But our focus is on driving the Xeon architecture. We see no benefit to deployment of SQL Server on Itanium at this point."

NEC has its own line of Itanium-based servers, using homegrown chipsets. Should NEC launch Tukwila-compatible machinery, Unisys could just re-brand NEC boxes if customers demand an upgrade path. Lacey did not give any impression that such a thing was in the works, but it is his job not to encourage speculation.

The reason that Unisys is so comfortable not endorsing Tukwila Itaniums at this point is obvious: It doesn't make much money from Itanium machines and it is at the same time touting the new Xeon machines like crazy. The TPC-H data warehouse benchmark test result that Unisys has just put out, which was the occasion for even talking about Xeon and Itanium boxes in the first place, shows that Unisys doesn't need Itanium any more.

On the TPC-H test with a 10 TB data warehouse, a Unisys ES7600R using the hex-core Dunningtons running at 2.66 GHz with 16 MB of L3 cache, configured with 512 GB of main memory and 88.1 TB of disk capacity and running Windows Server 2008 Datacenter Edition and SQL Server 2008 Enterprise Edition (both 64-bit versions, of course).

Unisys disabled two of the cores on each Dunnington chip, so only 64 cores were active in the box. This was done so the company could compare the Monster Xeon box directly to an Integrity Superdome machine using 32 dual-core Itanium chips. The ES7600R so configured was able to crank through 80,172.7 queries per hour (QPH) at a cost of $18.95 per QPH. (The sticker price was $1.52m, including three years of maintenance, and that was list price from Unisys with no discounting).

That HP Integrity box was configured with 32 dual-core Itanium 9140N Montvale processors running at 1.6 GHz and equipped with 18 MB of L2 cache per chip. The Integrity server was equipped with 768 GB of main memory and 84.8 TB of disk capacity, running the Itanium versions of the same Windows software stack. The HP box was able to do 63,650.9 QPH on the 10 TB data warehouse test, at a cost of $38.54 per QPH. That HP setup cost $2.45m, and that was after a 50.9 per cent discount off the configuration's list price. So at list prices, HP's Superdome is nearly four times as expensive as the Unisys machine.

Of course, the Superdome still has a lot more expansion room than the ES7600R. It is hard to imagine that turning on those inactive cores in the ES7000 would really add 50 per cent more oomph on the TPC-H benchmark, but it could come close. But HP can cram 64 dual-core Montvales into a single system image. In a machine configured with 512 GB of memory and a staggering 448.7 TB of disk capacity, running HP-UX 11i and Oracle 11g Enterprise Edition, it was able to do 208,457.7 QPH at a cost of $27.97 per QPH. The list price for this configuration was $10.4m, and storage accounted for 35 per cent of the system cost. HP slapped on a 42.5 per cent discount on the configuration to get the price down to $5.82m and a competitive bang for the buck.

Unisys can't scale up performance as far as HP can discount to sell its biggest iron. At least for now. But for smaller machines, it can make a strong case for the Windows-Xeon combo. And if Unisys needs to make a sale, it can always do what IBM does: pitch clustered midrange SMP machines instead of bigger and more expensive SMPs. IBM has not run the 10 TB TPC-H test on its Power 595 128-core behemoth, but instead uses clusters of Power 570s. ®

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