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Hardware Today: Has RISC Gotten Risky?

Monday Aug 8th 2005 by Drew Robb

HP is dumping the RISC chip model and has thrown its hand in with AMD and Intel. Sun is introducing some x86 chips into its server line. Are we on the way to a RISC-free world?

The recently introduced HP PA-890 processor marks the end of an era at HP. The chip is the last in the line of RISC chips HP has developed, and it completes the vendor's transition to an all-x86 architecture.

"The PA-RISC 8900, introduced in May 2005, is HP's last RISC processor," says Tim Danielsen, worldwide product line manager, Business Critical Servers, at HP. "Customers want standards-based, modular components to have more flexible and agile datacenters."

SGI, too, is end-of-lifing its RISC chip (MIPS) along with its Origin server line. The move shrinks the RISC vendor community down to an elite group. Among primary vendors, only Sun and IBM now offer RISC. And Sun has already opened the door to x86, with AMD Opteron chips being introduced to the fold.

"Both Sun and HP are doing quite a bit of business with systems based on AMD's Opteron chip, which is now dual core and a strong performer," says Dan Olds, principal of the Oregon-based Gabriel Consulting Group.

IBM, despite its myriad x86 offerings, remains true to its POWER line. Both Big Blue and Sun continue RISC development, and, for the moment, at least, show no signs of abating these efforts.

RISC Basics, the 80/20 Rule

RISC stands for reduced instruction set computer. The idea is to streamline the number of types of computer instructions performed so the CPU will operate at a higher speed. IBM researcher John Cocke originated the concept in 1974. He demonstrated that 20 percent of the instructions did 80 percent of the work. This led to the IBM PC/XT in 1980 and then the IBM RISC System/6000. Sun Microsystems also incorporated the concept into its SPARC (Scalable Processor Architecture) processors.

RISC stands for reduced instruction set computer. The idea is to streamline the number of types of computer instructions performed so the CPU will operate at a higher speed.

Until recently, HP made heavy use of RISC technology in its NONSTOP, AlphaServer, and HP 9000 lines. But now the vendor is paring down its server ranks, and RISC is the big casualty.

"The NONSTOP, HP 9000, and SuperDome used RISC or MIPS processors, and
these are all being phased over to Itanium processors or the lines phased
out all together," says Danielsen.

The AlphaServer is being dropped, along with its RISC chip, as HP transitions OpenVMS users to Integrity servers. The company designed the code in the latest version of OpenVMS to run well on both kinds of hardware. The HP 9000 server family will soon be history, too. Again, HP designed the HP-UX11i operating system to run on either the 9000 series or Integrity and has issued detailed migration plans and software transition kits to move customers onto the newer hardware.

"HP 9000 server customers will be transitioned to HP Integrity servers," says Danielsen.

Easier said that done. According to analysts, the anticipated pace of the shift from Alpha, HP 9000, and NONSTOP to Integrity servers has not been realized.

"Though HP has announced that it is pulling the plug on PA-RISC, it is still having trouble getting customers to move to Itanium," says Dan Olds, principal of the Oregon-based Gabriel Consulting Group. "The transition is taking a long time, and customers are not adopting it nearly as fast as HP and Intel would hope."

So will recalcitrant users of HP's RISC-based processors be left high and dry? It appears not. Danielsen emphasizes that the HP 9000 Superdome and midrange servers can be purchased through 2008, with service and support continuing until 2013. Similarly, HP 9000 entry-class servers can be purchased through 2007, with service and support continuing until 2012. Overall, the RISC line will be supported until 2012 (for the entry-class) and 2013 (for the Superdome and midrange lines). A similar support pathway exists for AlphaServers.

>> Multicore RISC

Multicore RISC

Far from doom and gloom in the RISC camp, Sun and IBM continue to fly the flag and have development roadmaps for their chips stretching years into the future. Both already have dual-core products on the market, and multicore is on the immediate horizon.

Sun, though, is coming out of a relatively quite period in SPARC development.

"Sun has been a bit mired down with little talk in terms of processor or system performance, although their new OS [Solaris 10] is a great technical achievement and seems be enjoying a rapid adoption rate by customers," says Olds. "Sun's Niagra project might change all this in the near future.

The not-so-subtle implication is that SPARC, POWER, PA-RISC, and MIPS are nonstandard and therefore dated computing technologies. This onslaught has claimed HP and SGI as casualties, and has certainly caused Sun to blink, if not falter.
The real news on SPARC, then, is not what's happened recently, but what will be released early next year. Sun's big move is the Niagara processor, which is scheduled to be released in the first quarter of 2006. It will have a total of eight cores on a single chip.

Sun stands to gain much from Niagra's success. "If this works as well as they say, it will get Sun back into the performance race in a big way," says Olds.

 

Not So Fast

There is no doubt that RISC is under attack from AMD and Intel. The performance gulf between the chips has largely been crossed over the past couple of years. And the public relations machine of the x86 camp is doing a fine job in marginalizing RISC via its "standard architectures" campaign. The not-so-subtle implication is that SPARC, POWER, PA-RISC, and MIPS are nonstandard and therefore dated computing technologies. This onslaught has claimed HP and SGI as casualties, and has certainly caused Sun to blink, if not falter.

For now, however, some Sun partners remain supportive to the SPARC architecture. Fujitsu, in particular, continues to sell SPARC processors in its PrimePower server line.

"The PrimePower server family was recently upgraded to support SPARC64 processors with over 2 GHz clock speeds providing additional processing power for Solaris applications," says Richard McCormack, senior vice president, Product & Solutions Marketing, Fujitsu Computer Systems. "As a result, Fujitsu has been gaining ground in the Unix market by supporting SPARC/Solaris applications."

And at the very heart of the modern RISC movement lies the might of IBM. Its POWER5 chip has earned kudos in the marketplace, is doing very well in the supercomputing tallies produced by top500.org, and is the foundation of almost all IBM server products. In short, IBM and its POWER processors are here for the long haul.

"Right now, IBM is clearly in the lead in the RISC field with the POWER5 processor in terms of both processor and system performance," confirms Olds.

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