Chips with everything: processors get embedded functions

Embedding functionality into hardware promises speed, power and economy. What more could you ask for?

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Hardware performance is about much more than clock speed and raw processing power these days, thanks to embedded functions that are helping do things from improving security to virtualising servers.

Chip makers, including Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), are ushering in a new era in processor design by adding hardware-enabled features to their wares. The goal is to either replace functions that have traditionally been done via software or, more often, significantly improve the operation of the software.

As an added bonus, these hardware-assisted processor functions improve overall system performance without increasing the heat generated, the vendors claim, allowing businesses to keep a lid on utility costs and reduce the need for exotic cooling strategies.

"This is something that has been coming for a long time," says Rick Sturm, president at analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates. "It's the natural course of evolution, and an affordable and rational thing to do to put some of this functionality down on the chip level."

As computer platforms and overall system management increase in complexity, IT professionals are demanding that systems have 100% availability, response times of less than a second and instant problem resolution, Sturm says. These goals are no longer strictly the purview of any one area -- silicon, software or human intervention -- but are now being addressed by taking advantage of advances on all fronts. IT is "strangling" from the costs of operations, Sturm says. "We're spending so much money on management that it is preventing us from innovating and addressing the needs of business."

Early customers

The Charlotte Observer, a large US regional daily newspaper, began migrating some of the publication's most important applications to a virtualised environment in December.

The paper is moving its Oracle-based circulation system database to servers that have Intel's new quad-core Xeon processors with built-in, hardware-enabled virtualisation technology. The paper's editorial content workflow system is also being put on the virtualised servers.

Geoff Shorter, IT infrastructure manager at the Charlotte Observer, says he found out during the testing phase how these new servers can run virtualisation at near-native speeds. The database used for the test prepared subscription renewal notices and determined which accounts needed to billed, how much to bill and for what period of time.

Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer for virtualisation software provider Virtual Iron, says virtualisation often results in overall hardware performance loss, ranging from 10% to 50%. But when using chip-enabled virtualisation, the performance loss drops to 4% or less.

This is also what Shorter's group found. "Virtual Iron will tell you their overhead is between 1% and 3%, but a 3% difference on a 10-minute [database run] is not noticeable," Shorter says. "It's just like native. The driving force for going to a virtualisation strategy was cost, but we've tested it, and performance is also a driving factor."

Shorter estimates he can run seven to 12 virtual servers per single-core processor node on existing systems. As the newspaper transitions to quad-core systems over the next year, he expects to be able to support around 30 virtual servers per physical node.

Jason Lochhead, principle architect at managed hosting provider Data Return, says the company is already seeing benefits from hardware-assisted virtualisation within the server infrastructure it offers its customers.

A year ago, Data Return introduced its Infinistructure utility computing platform intended to allow customers to maximise server utilisation and create on-demand computing resources more economically through the use of server virtualisation. Using Hewlett-Packard servers based on AMD Opteron processors, Data Return has been able to create hundreds of virtual server instances for customers.

"We don't have as much wasted hardware capacity and have lowered power and cooling bills by consolidating these physical servers with the use of virtualised machines," Lochhead says. "It's much cheaper, particularly when you' re talking about adding servers for redundancy rather than performance."

The hardware-assisted virtualisation capability of the AMD Opteron processors allows Data Return to run many more operating system varieties on both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the same base hardware, he says. In future, Opteron’s hardware-assisted abilities are expected to include memory translation and virtualised access to input/output devices, he says.

"We're enthusiastic about it," Lochhead says. "When we were first going down this road, virtualisation was pretty new, and customers were a little leery of accepting it. But when someone like AMD comes out and says they are putting these technologies into hardware, it's a vote of confidence."

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