Trying to boost the IT capabilities at his digital forensics company, Brian Dykstra invested in a quad-core processor-based server. After all, he figured, more cores means a more powerful machine that can do far more work than single-core systems.
However, after shelling out money for the new technology, Dykstra found that only one out of the four cores was working. Three-fourths of his hardware investment was sitting idle because the software he was running wasn't built to make use of multiple cores.
Dykstra isn't alone in his disappointment with the lack of software for multicore chips. As hardware firms increase the number of cores in single chips, most software simply isn't keeping pace, creating a huge drag on efforts to take advantage of the potentially significant hardware-based performance improvements.
Software running on multicore chips must be built to let different cores handle different tasks in an application at the same time, significantly boosting performance.
Dykstra noted that while some server software from major vendors like Microsoft and Oracle, has been partially multi-threaded, for the most part there is a dearth of such applications.
Once Dykstra, co-founder and a senior partner at Columbia-Maryland-based Jones Dykstra & Associates, figured out his firm's most critical software, he compiled a list of vendors, picked up the phone and started haranguing them to add support for the chips. He didn't identify the vendors.
Nonetheless, some IT managers have been able to cut costs and hardware needs by using the multicore technology in virtualisation projects.
For instance, when a company goes down the virtualisation road with multicore systems, each core is assigned its own virtual machine, allowing each to run a separate application.
Virtualisation on multicore chips is working out very well for Bruce McMillan, manager of emerging technologies at the US division of Solvay Pharmaceuticals who has scaled his virtual machine total by 50% while cutting the number of physical servers in his datacentre almost in half.
McMillan said he had been running 100 virtual machines on eight servers running single-core processors. He added two dual-core servers about a year ago and he was able to scale from 100 to 150 virtual machines.
About a month ago, Solvay installed a quad-core server, which enabled it to retire three single-core servers. The company is now in the process of adding two more quad-core servers, which will replace all of the remaining single core systems, according to McMillan.
"It's saved me $500,000 [so far] just in hardware costs," he said. "I can have much higher consolidation ratios than I had before. This is about server consolidation."
McMillan said he's looking forward to getting more multi-threaded software but, for today, he's happy that the multicores are allowing him to do more work with less hardware.
"It's a new level of scalability," he said. "It's enabled us to really reduce our footprint in the datacentre. It's reduced our cooling costs. It's giving us less physical servers to manage. The maintenance contracts are cheaper. We're using fewer network portals because we have fewer machines."
And the lack of multi-threaded software certainly hasn't slowed the development of multicore processors by the world's top chipmakers.
Just this month, California-based Intel released its new Xeon 7400 server processor series, which includes six-core technology, a new high-water mark in the semiconductor industry.
And while the step from quad-core to six-core processors is a big one, it's slated to be quickly trumped by Intel.
Eight-core versions of the company's next generation chip, dubbed Nehalem, are expected to go into production during 2009. The first releases of the Nehalem chip family are slated to be quad-core server chips slated to ship in the fourth quarter of this year.
At the same time, Advanced Micro Devices, still far behind rival Intel in producing more than quad core chips, has released its road map for pushing the processor envelope.
The Sunnyvale, Calif., company expects to ship its six-core Istanbul server processor in the second half of 2009 and a 12-core server processor during the first half of 2010.
And IBM is building supercomputers that run the eight-core Cell chip, which the company jointly developed with Sony and Toshiba to run large computations on Sony's PlayStation 3 video game system.
Possibly the farthest reaching project is underway in labs where Intel engineers are working on an 80-core processor. The company showed off the technology at a conference in early 2007.
Though there have been no publicly announced plans to actually build it, analysts say the research into an 80-core chip is a hint of the future -- possible the not-so-distant future.
"You know, at this point, everyone knows we're going to go up with the multicores - quads to six, to eight, to 12 cores," said Jim McGregor, an analyst at In-Stat in Arizona.
"The road maps are out there for multiple cores," he added, allowing IT managers to start planning to take advantage of the technology. "We know the track the technology is taking. This is an evolutionary cycle."
McGregor said he expects to see 16 cores on a chip within 18 months to two years. He noted that the chip making industry is almost to the point where it is doubling the number of cores on processors every two years.
The issue for IT executives today is to try and determine how helpful that doubling - or any increase in processor cores for that matter - might really be until the software problem is solved.
Just ask Dykstra.
"It's really disappointing when you fire up a quad-core and then you see it's really only running on one core," Dykstra said. "All that extra money and expense, and you're not really getting a boost in speed."
In most cases today, only one core of a quad-core chip is used to run software "to its max usage potential, while the other three cores are just sitting there doing nothing," Dykstra said. Therefore, "you have 25% CPU usage" in most cases. Taking advantage of all the cores, he added would boost performance by 75%.
"It [means] more data is pushed through, [there is] quicker delivery time to clients and it's more money," he added. "That's why we go to vendors and harangue them to do better."
The effort to get multi-threaded software will likely take longer than many IT managers hope, say analysts, due to some basic reasons.
First and foremost, building multi-threaded software is expensive. It's also a difficult task, especially for the many developers who learned how to code single-threaded software, and have done nothing but that for years.
"We have a serious developer problem," noted Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group in San Jose, Calif. "People just don't know how to develop" for multicore machines.
"The environment has been single-threaded for so long that developers really haven't developed the skills. It's difficult to take things apart, make them run separately and then have them come together perfectly at the end," he added.
In a statement, Microsoft cited a lack of tools built for creating multi-threaded software.
Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD, predicted that software companies will make major advances in writing multi-threaded code within five years.
But even when multithreaded software starts flowing from vendors, it won't help the many large companies that run internally developed legacy applications that can't easily be replaced. Eventually, companies that want those applications to utilize multicore processors will have to take on a massive job of either rewriting the software or replacing it.
Today's volatile economy also isn't helping the cause of multi-threaded software development, as companies must prove a strong business benefit when seeking to build or buy new technologies, noted Joanne Kossuth, vice president of Operations and Chief Information Officer at the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Mass.
"The challenge is, in the economic arena we're in right now, cost is critical," she said. "How much will those 12 cores cost and then what am I going to not be able to do? Will I be able to get rid of servers? Will I be able to consolidate?
We can't just ask for the new toys anymore. There has to be a business application for them."