NUMA poised to power Intel-based servers

Although it may be some time before NUMA (Non-Uniform Memory Access) technology creeps outside its higher-end niche applications, Microsoft's strong endorsement of the technology figures to generate more market interest and possibly speed development among both Unix-based and Intel-based server competitors and allies alike.

Earlier this month Microsoft said it would support NUMA in its upcoming Windows .Net DataCenter Server as well as its Windows .Net Enterprise Server, expected to be delivered by the end of this year.

Available for years in high-end Unix servers running SMP (symmetric multi-processor) configurations, NUMA technology allows for faster communication between distributed memory in a multi-processor server, explained Brad Day, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

At the surface, Microsoft's motivation for bringing NUMA to Windows stems from the recent release of Intel's Xeon MP (multi-processor) server chips, which can scale to as many as 16-way SMP configurations. As Vendors including IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), and others begin introducing servers based on Xeon MP that run more than 8-way processor configurations, NUMA technology will be there as an option for users looking for stable computing platforms on such high-end server systems, said Day.

"Microsoft up to this point has really been focusing on optimizing their SMP scaling for up to 8-way server frameworks," Day said. "But now vendors realize they can build larger quads -- combinations of four processors -- based on the Xeon MP. And when you start to expand the microprocessor architecture of servers beyond 8-way, you need to take advantage of both near and far memory to get better scaling -- that's what NUMA brings."

IBM's recently introduced x440 server represents the beginning of the arrival of Xeon MP-based servers. The x440 scales up to a 16-way system, according to IBM.

Although not yet a serious threat to high-end Unix servers, Microsoft's implementation of the technology on lower-end Intel platforms should promote interest for the technology among leading Windows server OEMs while applying added pressure on the market for higher-end NUMA servers sold by their own Unix divisions or by competitors.

"I don't think Microsoft's [NUMA] implementations will seriously threaten those of the Unix vendors, but it may keep them honest and moving forward. Not a bad situation for users like us with investments in both," said John Hildenbrand, systems engineer at a large public utility in Gaithersburg, Md.

Perhaps more importantly, NUMA-based versions of Microsoft's enterprise servers will present richer opportunities for hundreds of software developers to pursue opportunities at the highest levels of the enterprise.

"This is a milestone for Windows developers because a lot of ISVs have been looking for a reason to more finely thread their applications to scale to 8- and 16-way configurations. IBM and Oracle should be happy to see this. Databases have never had a problem taking advantage of as many processors as you can put on a system," said Jay Bretzmann, director of product marketing for IBM's e-Server series.

With many hardware makers on both sides of the Intel-Unix fence already out there with NUMA implementations, the blue collar work from here on out figures to be on the developers who must adapt their existing applications to exploit the architecture, which may prove to be no mean feat.

"The burden now is on the database guys such as Microsoft with SQL Server and IBM with DB2. There will be a lot of tweaking that needs to be done there, as we saw in the case of the 32-way CMP-based systems," said Tim Donahue, an associate partner at Accenture in Columbus, referring to Unisys' Intel-based system. "But the key here is Microsoft's willingness to support these higher-end platforms."

Besides databases, Donahue believes the fortunes of companies such as The SAS Institute with associated or attendant database technologies such as data mining and data warehousing will also benefit greatly from NUMA being popularized on Intel.

Before Wintel-based companies start delivering their next-generation NUMA goods, there will be a lot of market posturing that might obscure existing technologies that could serve their needs adequately.

"To be candid, what is probably shaping up is a bragging rights game in terms of some staking out a position at the high end. Most of the things our customers want to do in terms of evolving their internal IT capabilities, as well as supporting their business applications, can be done on the Windows 2000 platform now," said Ashish Kumar, CTO of Avanade.

NUMA will become only one of many options for Windows server customers looking to scale beyond 8-way servers. For example, Microsoft also supports SMP server company Unisys which makes a 32-way SMP server that already runs the Windows Server OS.

But as the industry continues to seek more Intel-based systems for their low price, NUMA technology will likely flourish as an efficient method for creating high-powered Intel servers.

"There is a business reason why we are seeing these [Intel-based] server vendors go to this technology. It is less expensive to build four-cell systems and interconnect them than it is to have all the infrastructure to support a large symmetric multiprocesssor. This allows them to offer it at a much lower cost to users," said Bob Ellsworth, group product manager for the Windows server product group.

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