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Early adopters laud multicore systems

Systems keeping heat, power under control; some software issues remain.

By , Network World
April 03, 2006 12:05 AM ET

Network World - FlightAware's business is soaring. In the year since its launch, the company that tracks private and commercial air traffic in the United States has been serving up about half a million requests a day, with demand doubling every few weeks.

It's a huge load for the small Houston company and one that required its founders to think creatively when it came to building out the infrastructure to support its rapid growth. One innovative move: FlightAware last summer became an early adopter of new dual-core x86-based servers.

"All the TV networks turn to FlightAware to track flights whenever there are aviation incidents, which poses a problem for us, because it's a phenomenal amount of load," says Daniel Baker, FlightAware's CEO.

By moving its two PostgreSQL databases from Intel Pentium 4 systems and onto 64-bit capable, dual-core Opteron-based servers, FlightAware can handle huge spikes in traffic without increasing its number of servers.

"So while our load doubles every few weeks, our performance stays about the same," Baker says. "I consider the fact we haven't had a decrease in performance a win."

Dual-core processors are the first wave in an industry move toward multicore chip designs as a way to get around heat and power issues associated with faster running processors. Rather than pumping up clock speed, these chips squeeze multiple processing engines on a single piece of silicon, enabling more work to be done at lower clock speeds and with less heat output and lower power demands. These chips are also multithreaded, meaning that they can simultaneously handle multiple application instructions.

While IBM has had a dual-core processor since 2001, an industrywide shift is only now beginning. Sun and HP introduced dual-core Unix processors in 2004, and last year Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) moved x86 servers into the multicore arena with dual-core Opteron and Xeon processors. Sun began shipping an eight-core UltraSPARC server at the end of last year, and start-ups such as Azul Systems are designing their own multicore systems. Intel and AMD both say they will have quad-core processors shipping by early next year.

Analysts say initial interest in multicore servers focuses on the fact that they provide more power in smaller - and fewer -packages, resulting in easier management, less cabling, lower power demands and reduced heat output. According to IDC, nearly one-quarter of the $12.5 billion spent on servers in the third quarter of last year was spent on dual-core systems. In the fourth quarter, spending on AMD- and Intel-based dual-core systems more than doubled, compared with the previous quarter, IDC says.

While adoption is steady, as with any transition, there are growing pains. One of the biggest issues has been how "per CPU" software will be licensed as the definition of a CPU is muddied with multiple processing units fitting into a single CPU socket.

Independent software vendors have made progress during the past year with plans to either charge per socket, which Microsoft and VMware are doing, or to charge a small premium for multicore systems. Oracle, for example, has menulike pricing for the different multicore platforms, considering each x86 core as a half a processor for licensing purposes and each core on Sun's eight-core UltraSPARC T-1 chip as a quarter of a processor, for example.

Nevertheless, most early adopters are running open source or custom-built software on these multicore servers, making licensing a non-issue, at least for now. Ironing out the licensing tangle to make it easier for IT buyers to understand the costs associated with multicore servers should result in more widespread adoption, analysts say.

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