Future of Big Iron servers and Expensive Databases

This article came across a list, what follows was my response.
IBM and Oracle Present Rival Chips for 'big Iron' Servers
Wonderful to see the Dinosaurs still dukeing it out.

The eDRAM from IBM for the L3 cache is a big move. Like when they figured out how to use Copper in chips and reduced power use, hence heat production significantly.

I suspect we're seeing a replay of the late 1980's demise of mainframes... Not fast, not universal, not complete, but 90+% of the business goes away, killing weak supporting businesses.

Everyone but IBM's System Z and Unisys ClearPath went away - or into emulation.
[Clearpath = emulation on Xeon of 2200 & B-series]

In my view, two forces have converged to push these high-end niche processors into irrelevance:
  • Patterson's Brick Wall (2006):
    • Power Wall + Memory Wall + ILP Wall = Brick Wall
  • "infinite" IO/Sec and virtual-RAM with PCI-SSD. eg Fusion-IO
With cheap PCI-SSD by the Terabyte, the majority of Apps/enterprises don't need:
  • Big Iron Databases
  • Big Iron Storage Arrays and supporting SAN's
  • Big Iron multi-chip fast uniprocessing cores.
A lot of the complexity of Big Iron DB's (like Oracle) is aimed at achieving "speed" in the face of low-performing HDD's... [slow IO/sec, not streaming throughput]

If the whole of a relational DB (tables) fits in memory (or fast Virtual memory), then doesn't the DB become very simple, modulo ACID tests and writing "commits" to persistent, high-reliability storage?

Which means we might start seeing a bunch of in-memory DB's, like NoSQL, but for normal-sized DB's (1-5Gb), not large collections.

There's an economic rule on product substitution that led to the relatively quick decline in IBM mainframe sales:
  • when the capital expenditure on a substitute is less than the operational costs of the current system, barriers to adoption are removed.
    • capital costs are 'sunk' and can't be recovered.
    • To realise savings, you have to wait for the next upgrade or refresh cycle.
    • But the conversion costs have to be factored in, and incumbent vendors take care to price upgrades, even "forklift upgrades" (complete replacement) under the total cost of moving to a new solution. [Used to advantage by Tier 1 Storage Array vendors currently].
    • But Operational Costs, like maintenance charges, aren't 'sunk'.
      • They are due every year.
      • When a whole system is less than recurrent costs, businesses can quickly and easily justify the change.
      • They write-off the CapEx for the old equipment and wheel it out the door.
      • Usually "Big Iron" hardware has zero residual value, even when 2 years old.
      • When the equipment is on the cusp of being obsolescent, it is worse.
      • Or they have to figure out how to break the lease.
      • Unless they went into debt to fund the CapEx, they can move away quickly.
Hardware maintenance fees are typically 15-20% of capital costs.
Whilst Oracle licensing costs are beyond me (I don't track them) - but are becoming a major component of Enterprise Computing costs.

How many "little" DB applications need to succeed with two low-cost ($10k) servers, 3 SATA drives each in simple RAID and 1 Fusion-IO board, run as H/A with an in-memory DB?

If organisations can build a complete, high-performance, high-availability, simple-admin solution for $20-$30k per group of DB's, they can afford to deploy them immediately based on direct maintenance savings.

Follow-up comment:
Intel are looking over their shoulder at becoming dinosaurs. Maybe I won't live to see it, but ARM servers could very well do in the x86_64.
And so they should for most general purpose computing.

I remember seeing John Mashey of MIPS talk in 1988 where he plotted CPU speed for each of ECL, bipolar and CMOS technologies. ECL had been overtaken by then, bipolar was due to lose the lead within a few years.
The 486 in 1991 was a complete system-on-a-chip and changed the landscape.

It answers the question "Where did all the supercomputers go?"
A: Inside Intel. [and Power and SPARC. possibly Z series]

The Intel chips seek "maximum performance" - they pull all the tricks that super-computer designs used, and its is that technology that is approaching Pattersons' "Brick Wall" [heat, memory, ILP]

And as an aside, GPU's are filling the "vector processor" niche of CDC and Cray.

ARM has pursued a very different strategy, more based around 'efficiency': MIPS/Watt

So, while I agree with you, I think the situation is nuanced.

ARM processors are obvious choices for low-power and mobile/battery devices.
Because of design simplicity (small PSU, no CPU-fan) and smaller size, they'll become more interesting for low-end PC's, especially portable devices.

There is a company, Calxeda, now producing high-density ARM boards for servers.
They are hoping to leverage MIPS/Watt for highly-parallelisable loads, like web-servers.

But I can't see anyone taking on Intel soon in the supercomputer-on-a-chip market.
It's not just servers, especially for large DB's, but workstations and 'performance' laptops.

The problem with that evolution of the market for Intel is ARM taking sales from multiple market segments. Seeing that Winders-8 will run on ARM, we might see the end of WinTel for low-end & mid-tier laptops.

As a company, can Intel survive such a radical change in demand for its major product line?
Will its work on MLC flash fill the financial void?

I've no idea how that will go.
But like you said, ARM is going to shake up even the Intel server market.

The "secret sauce" that the ARM architecture has is that it's a licensed design.
Although chip design companies might not own or be able to access chip FABs within 2 or 3 design cycles of Intel, they can produce highly optimised and use-case targeted chips.

Which Intel can't do. They are focussed on the bleeding edge of CPU performance and FAB design.

Manufacturers like Apple/A5 and Calxeda can produced ARM-based designs that can outperform Intel-based systems by an order-of-magnitude on non-MIPs metrics.

As Apple has shown, there are very big markets where raw MIPs isn't the "figure of merit" in designs.

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