Taking the mainframe to the server

Servers with mainframe capability are the Holy Grail of computing, says Tom Yager

Even those who came late to enlightenment about AMD’s concurrent leadership in fire power per dollar, transactions per kilowatt, value per square inch and vastness of commercial software are wondering what it will do next.

AMD’s CTO, Phil Hester, filled in some of the mind-expanding particulars of AMD’s server strategy during sessions at the opening of AMD’s Fab 39 in Dresden, Germany. (See “AMD says CPU FAB, OK?”, Computerworld, November 7). Hester came into AMD with many goals, the most ambitious of which is to carry AMD’s server processors and chipsets into the mainframe league.

Yes, you read that right. I said mainframe — out loud. Hear me out: Hester’s really on to something. Half his plan benefits clients and servers alike and AMD will grow technologies in areas where it already leads — like fast maths, multiple cores per chip and extraordinarily fast bus architectures. But Hester also detailed plans to extend AMD64 beyond the bounds of x86 and go after mainframe-grade “-ilities” like reliability, scalability, manageability, availability and serviceability. AMD is also targeting hardware support for fine-grained resource allocation, and utilisation through partitioning, which is the arbitrary assignment of a system’s physical assets, like CPUs and memory to given tasks (physical sub-systems within a physical system) and virtualisation, which allows each physical partition to host multiple systems virtualised in software.

The x86 server can support sub-sets of these features today, but no two approaches are the same, and each has gaps and limitations. The AMD64 server architecture will bake the “-ilities” — along with partitioning, virtualisation and other big iron goodness — into AMD64 CPUs and chipsets. Imagine knowing that if you bought an Opteron II (or whatever) server, of any brand, you’d have a box that could turn itself into a rack-mountable mainframe running AMD64 editions of Linux, Windows, Solaris or BSD, or all of them together. They won’t have to be architecture-aware to function well — that’s the benefit of a standardised platform — but the more aware the software is, the more advantage it can take of the environment.

Can AMD do it? Phil Hester hails from IBM, from whence bulletproof things are known to come, and more recently from Newisys, the nearly invisible but inestimably influential think tank cum engineering shop that’s already got a great handle on the whole “honey, I shrunk the mainframe” thing. Not coincidentally, the best of Hester’s IBM high-brightness brain trust landed at Newisys. Also not a coincidence is AMD’s cross-licensing and shared R&D pact with IBM on the science required to pull off the kind of long shot AMD has in mind.

I could be indulging in sheer hallucinatory fantasy (my specialty) to imagine that in four years or so we’ll be able to choose between compact, power-efficient, high performance, exquisitely interconnected rack-mount boxes and 64-way monolithic servers that you set up and manage exactly like the smaller rack units and that run the same operating systems and applications. Now, this may sound like technology overkill or optimistic speculation, but trust me on this: you want x86 servers designed on standardised mainframe blueprints.

Yager is chief technologist at the InfoWorld Test Centre. Email him at tom_yager@infoworld.com

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