Technology marches on

Technology marches on

Even an IT spending market suffering through a protracted slump can't keep good technologies down. For struggling IT vendors on the receiving end of shrinking budgets, the pressure to innovate just gets greater.

Even an IT spending market suffering through a protracted slump can't keep good technologies down. For struggling IT vendors on the receiving end of shrinking budgets, the pressure to innovate just gets greater. Two big stories this year have been the introduction of Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s Opteron 32-/64-bit microprocessor and the wider adoption of storage virtualization. Opteron is significant because it will compete head-on with Intel Corp.'s 64-bit Itanium processor. And it has attracted support from IT superpowers such as Oracle Corp., Microsoft Corp., and IBM Corp.

Technologically, Opteron bills itself as the first 64-bit workstation and server microprocessor that can also run the vast universe of 32-bit applications "without compromise." That means the processor is optimized to run in both modes instead of just one, as AMD would say is the case with Intel's Itanium. The bottom line is a smoother migration path from today's 32-bit applications to the future's 64-bit world. Or as AMD claims, Opteron removes the final barrier to 64-bit computing by preserving the massive investment in 32-bit applications.

"Of course they are going to say that -- they have to make an opening for themselves," grumbled an Intel executive who requested not to be named. While Intel has been quiet about Opteron, it introduced software in February called "IA-32 Execution Layer" that speeds up 32-bit applications on Itanium to better match up with its new competition.

"Itanium competes with Sun and IBM and is a replacement for Hewlett-Packard Co.'s PA-RISC (architecture). We are really focused on the 64-bit end of the market. If you want 32-bit operation, keep using (Intel) Xeons," advises Intel spokeswoman Barbara Grimes.

AMD offers a dizzying number of e-mail, database, processor, and Web-serving benchmarks, pitting Opteron against Itanium 2 with Xeon thrown in for good measure. The upshot -- if the benchmarks are to be believed (run your own!) -- is that Itanium 2 and Opteron are running neck and neck.

Where they depart dramatically is on price. Comparing the costs of such complex devices is done at one's own peril, but the difference is too big to disregard. Intel charges US$1,338, $2,247, and $4,226 for its three Itanium 2 models. The three Opteron two-way models shipping now range from $283 to $794 (the eight-way versions due out at the end of the quarter will likely cost more). But is Itanium 2 four to five times better than Opteron two-way models, as the pricing suggests?

AMD isn't exactly a household name in Big Pharma. Except for Texas A&M, which AMD says is building a 250-node server cluster using Opteron-based compute power for research in chemistry, physics, and agriculture, AMD could not cough up other names in the drug discovery arena. But that could change if AMD's Opteron significantly lowers the cost of high-performance workstations and servers. (It didn't hurt that just after Opteron was introduced, Intel acknowledged a bug in Itanium 2.)

Grimes points out that nine out of 10 servers today have an Intel microprocessor inside -- reason enough for me to be happy that Opteron is here.

Virtualizing Storage

While Opteron provides needed competition to Intel, storage virtualization promises to tackle the data glut management problem. By creating a logical file system embodied in a storage area network (SAN), virtualization separates applications and servers from the physical disks. Users benefit by accessing one huge pool of enterprise storage without major intervention by a server -- a step that slows down data-intensive applications.

In theory, virtualization could substantially reduce the number of data silos that have hamstrung drug discovery. Many of the storage biggies, including IBM, EMC Corp., Sun, Network Appliance Inc., and HP, have announced storage virtualization products. Cisco Systems Inc., Brocade Communications Systems Inc., and other networking companies are fitting together the networking pieces of the virtualization puzzle. And a host of smaller companies, such as DataCore Software Corp. and StoreAge Networking Technologies Ltd., have driven a virtual stake into the ground.

"Storage virtualization stands on the threshold of maturing as a viable commercial solution to simplify the storage infrastructure. For customers to realize these benefits, the storage industry needs to work together to deliver scalable and interoperable virtualization solutions," said Michael Zisman, IBM vice president of corporate strategy, at the Storage Networking World conference in April.

Unless the storage industry agrees on standards through organizations such as the Storage Networking Industry Association, virtualization risks creating bigger single-vendor silos. But the message seems to be getting through. HP's sv3000 storage virtualization "appliance" works with storage subsystems from Compaq, Dell, Hitachi, and EMC. Also, IBM's highly anticipated Storage Tank product due out later this year promises to work with other storage subsystems and files from Windows 2000 or XP, AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, and Linux operating systems.

Over the past two decades, the computer industry has done a decent job of policing itself against proprietary platforms when they were important enough. A robust standards effort in most phases of computing has become the rule, not the exception. One need look no further than the Internet, which connected millions of isolated networks.

Cultural and workflow peculiarities notwithstanding, storage virtualization has the potential to bring down technical barriers that create islands of information. The rest is up to us.-- Bio-IT World

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