Variations on an Opteron Theme

By Michael Feldman

July 14, 2006

This week Sun Microsystems, Inc. introduced three new AMD Opteron-based server products targeted to the high performance computing and enterprise space: the industry's first 4-16 way x64 (64-bit x86) server, a data server that can accommodate up the 24 terabytes of internal disk storage, and Sun's new blade platform.

The three new products are part of Sun's x64 strategy to use the AMD Opteron to expand its server offerings. Last September, Sun entered the x64 space with the introduction of their 2-socket Opteron-based Galaxy servers. Even then, the company was already planning for some of the follow-on systems announced this week.
 
The new Sun Fire X4600 server is the 8-socket big brother to the 2-socket Galaxy servers.  The Opteron-based X4600 also comes in a 4-socket configuration.  By choosing either single-core or dual-core Opterons, the server can scale from a 4-way to a 16-way machine within a single 4U chassis. The X4600 will accommodate 64 GB of shared memory (up to 128 GB in the near future).

“It really is the industry's first 16-way enterprise-class system in a single chassis,” said David Lawler, Director of Product Definition and Strategy at Sun Microsystems. “It's a 4U chassis, so it's relatively dense as well.”

Sun is entering some fairly uncharted territory with it's 8-socket offering for x86-based systems. In the past, most analysts believed that the market for machines like this were rather limited. Sun appears to believe they can position the X4600 at a price point that will be attractive for high-end server customers.

“Historically, 8-socket x86 servers were 32-bit machines (so only four GB of memory) using Xeon MP — which doesn't scale that great — and were priced at a premium,” said Lawler. “[The analysts] were right; there was no market for that. We're actually pricing ours at the 4-socket space, not at the premium price.”

No other Tier 1 vendors are in the x86 8-socket space right now. For example, HP will point customers to their Itanium-based Integrity line if they want something over 4 sockets. But Sun is willing to follow Opteron scalability right into the high-end SMP space. Currently, the architecture supports eight sockets, so that's where Sun is today.

Outside of high performance computing space, the server is destined for database and enterprise consolidation. Within HPC, the X4600 is targeted for Electronic Design Automation (EDA), CAD/CAM applications, and other compute-intensive workloads requiring that can make use of large amounts of shared memory.

It is also suited for scaled out supercomputer platforms. The Tokyo Institute of Technology TSUBAME machine, announced this past May, is actually made up of 655 X4600 servers. The TSUBAME achieves 38 teraflops (sustained), making it the 7th fastest computer in the world based on the Linpack benchmark. It has a total of 10,480 Opteron cores and 21 TB of RAM. All X4600 servers in the Tokyo Tech machine are 8-socket configured. Because Sun designed the CPU/memory modules as upgradable, the TSUBAME machine can expand its computational performance by plugging in quad-core Opterons when they become available next year. To learn more about the TSUBAME supercomputer, read the interview with Professor Satoshi Matsuoka, of the Tokyo Tech's Global Scientific Information and Computing Center, in this week's issue.

In addition to the 600-plus X4600 servers in TSUBAME, the Tokyo Tech machine also incorporates a number of X4500 Sun Fire servers. The X4500, which was also officially introduced this week by Sun, is characterized as a data server, combining Opteron computation with a large amount of integrated SATA storage.  Each 2-socket (4-way) server can accommodate up to 24 TB of data. The TSUBAME machine has 42 such servers for a total of 1.1 petabytes of storage.

Lawler said the X4500 was designed to consolidate the functionality of a server, a SAN switch and a large number of storage arrays. It boasts disk-to-memory sustained data rates of 2 GB/sec, which makes it suited for HPC applications requiring high levels of I/O throughput. In the enterprise it is targeted for data warehousing/business intelligence, digital media streaming and digital surveillance.

“We're calling it the world's first hybrid data server — admittedly a marketing term,” said Lawler. “But it is really a hybrid of server and storage technology.”

The third product announced this week by Sun is their new blade — the Sun Blade 8000 Modular System. The system supports up to ten 4-socket dual-core Opteron blades in a 19U chassis. Sun claims it is the only blade based on industry-standard PCI Express I/O, and the only one with hot-pluggable I/O.  Lawler said it is also designed to be used as a replacement for rackmount servers, offering better energy efficiency and serviceability. The Sun Blade 8000 is targeted for high-throughput computing, such as would be required in many HPC applications.

“Compared to other blade offerings on the market or even compared to other rackmount offerings on the market, we have vastly more I/O in the Sun Blade 8000,” said Lawler. “Each blade has 192 Gbps of I/O. Compared to even other rackmount servers today, that's a lot. It's 2x compared to any other blade offering on the market.”

According to Lawler, the system was designed to scale up to quad-core processors and beyond (along with the associated increase in memory capacity) when that technology becomes available. The rationale behind the upgradability is to give the system a certain amount of longevity not found in competing blades.

“We're going multi-core in a big way; the whole industry is,” said Lawler. “And when you get up to 8-core and 16-core you're going to need a lot more memory and a lot more I/O. Well, memory turns into real estate. If you don't have the real estate on your blade to be able to handle all those DIMMs, you can't put it anywhere, so it doesn't work. We have all that in the Sun Blade 8000. We will also be coming out with a denser chassis, just for HPC.”

The Sun Blade 8000 differs in one fundamental way from most other blade designs — there is no I/O on the individual blades. Other vendors have integrated Ethernet, Fibre Channel or InfiniBand into the blades themselves.  Sun's approach was to use raw native PCI express running right off the blade.

“So I/O becomes an attribute of the chassis,” said Lawler. “Any blade can go into any chassis and it simply works.”

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