Server Makers Jockey For “Haswell” Xeon Pole Position
With VMware's VMworld extravaganza winding down, the talk will now shift from virtual servers to physical ones. Everyone expects for Intel to launch its next-generation "Haswell" Xeon E5 processors for two-socket servers at Intel Developer Forum, and the fact that Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Cisco Systems are talking about their next generation server platforms – without mentioning anything about the motors in them, of course – tells us new iron is indeed on the horizon.
The technical details are a little thin, and necessarily so because they cannot violate embargoes put in place by Intel, and the marketing is running high ahead of the feeds and speeds. HP CEO Meg Whitman and Enterprise Group general manager Bill Veghte hosted a webcast that talked very generally about the ProLiant Gen9 systems, which a screen during the webcast said would launch on September 17 but which HP sources said would come out on September 8. They talked generally about HP's commitment to servers since the first SystemPro shipped out of Compaq in 1989, and committed to developing "compute" platforms for the next twenty five years. The marketing message from HP is "Reimagine the server. Think compute." And the idea there is to get people to think about pools of computing capacity, governed by software controls, and less about the distinct physical boxes that, ironically enough, HP is very keen on selling. And as an example of how this shift in thinking works, Mike Gill, vice president of engineering for the ProLiant line, talked about the new Federated Integrated Lights Out (iLO) management controller in the ProLiants. With this capability, machines running in a datacenter can be grouped by rack or row or type and then managed as a whole. So, for instance, you could upgrade all of the BIOS software or apply power capping rules on a set of machines at the same time instead of having to apply the software or policies on the boxes one at a time.
HP has many different kinds of compute – ranging from plain vanilla rack and blades to the Moonshot hyperscale servers and the Apollo clusters – and these will be updated with future Xeon processors. Here are the machines that are being refreshed in the ProLiant Gen9 machines, and the key new features:
The DL160 and DL180 rack-mounted machines are both aimed at customers who want to pack the most computing into the smallest space and who do not want all of the bells and whistles that are available in the workhorse DL360 and DL380 rackers. The DL160 is being pitched as "right-sized performance for space and budget constrained environments," while the DL180 is "the new standard for growing datacenter needs." This is probably another way of saying these are bare-bones machines that have been stripped of everything not necessary in hyperscale and high performance computing environments. The DL360 and DL380 machines are going to have these goodies, perhaps with some standard and others as options, and therefore will carry higher price tags. HP is also launching the two-socket ML350 tower and the two-socket BL460c blade server – again, presumably with the Haswell Xeon E5 processors because HP would not confirm what motors are in these machines – and is updating the XL230s server node for its new Apollo 6000 commercial clusters and the XL730f node for its similarly new Apollo 8000 water-cooled supercomputer clusters.
One of the big changes with the Gen9 machines is that HP is shifting to UEFI, which is short for Unified Extensible Firmware Interface and which replaces the monolithic BIOS that dates back to the IBM PC from 1981. Gill said that HP could have moved to UEFI for the ProLiant machines earlier, but felt that it was not stable enough until now. (HP had made UEFI an option on the quad-socket DL580 Gen8 machine.)
With UEFI, the boot sequence is more modular and also has security keys to verify the source of code from low-level BIOS functions up through boot loaders and the operating system, and significantly allows for boot applications to be added into the boot sequence. This is a small thing to general purpose server buyers, but it is a big deal for server makers like HP and hyperscale and enterprise customers managing fleets of machines. The addition of REST APIs to the management controllers on the ProLiant Gen9 machines is another big change, and it will not only allow for system administrators to programmatically control their systems, but also to integrate the low-level hardware management directly with HP's OneView server, network, and storage management tool as well as Microsoft's System Center and VMware's vCenter software management tools. OneView
On the hardware front, the new ProLiant Gen9 machines will move from the DDR3 main memory running at between 1.3 GHz and 1.87 GHz to new DDR4 memory that tops out at 2.13 GHz. The systems will also have 12 Gb/sec SAS drives, controllers, and host bus adapters, doubling up the storage bandwidth. The FlexFabric Ethernet adapters for HP's BladeSystem blade servers are also doubled up to 20 Gb/sec speeds, and there are now Ethernet adapters running at 40 Gb/sec and support for RDMA over Converged Ethernet (RoCE) for selected adapters on the Gen9 servers. HP is also adding its own "PCIe accelerators" but did not elaborate further on what these might be.
Antonio Neri, who is general manager of the HP Servers and HP Networking divisions, gave a few hints about the performance of the ProLiant Gen9 machines. Speaking very generally – again, because he has no choice – Neri said that the ProLiant Gen9 machines would offer up to three times the compute capacity for a lower TCO than their predecessors and that they would also deliver about four times the performance per watt per dollar and cram it into 60 percent less space for certain HPC workloads. (That sounds like a comparison using the Apollo machines, not generic rack machines.) Neri also hinted that the Gen9 machines would have 30 percent better virtual machine performance
HP will be rolling out the rest of the Gen9 platforms over the next nine months, including a slew of new tower machines as well as microservers.
Dell has hired a new vice president of server solutions marketing from Oracle, and Ravi Pendekanti says in a blog post that since the launch of the 12th generation PowerEdge machines in February 2012, Dell has had more than 8,000 customer interactions to drive the feature set for the 13th generation of machines. Dell is expected to launch the first of the 13th generation machines on September 8m and among other things, the line will include a server-storage hybrid that uses 1.8-inch SATA drives. Dell is also adding support for software-defined storage to the PowerEdge line and near-field communications in the iDRAC QuickSync server management controller. Dell also hints that it has learned much from the launch of the PowerEdge VRTX converged system for small and medium businesses and will be expanding the converged lineup later this year.
Cisco is expected to reveal its future server platforms on September 4, and seeing as though the company only uses Intel Xeon chips in its Unified Computing System blade and rack servers, it is not hard to guess what Cisco will do. It is possible that the company will launch new form factors, considering that the original UCS chassis is now more than five years old. It would be absolutely unsurprising to see a new UCS chassis sporting new Xeons as well as nodes for the original chassis that use the latest Xeons. But it is also possible that the original chassis still has some legs and all Cisco does is add shiny new nodes.
We happen to think Cisco will do both, enhancing existing B-Series blades and C-Series racks with some engineering on new machines to focus on new workloads that Cisco has not attacked before. We base this on a hunch and this line in a Cisco invite: "With this launch, history repeats itself, as we work to help customers future proof the data center for change tomorrow and transformation today. Our development team has taken the next stride in the journey of re-inventing computing at the most fundamental levels, to power applications at every scale."
With HP and Dell having myriad compute form factors, it stands to reason that Cisco will diversify, too, as it chases new customers.