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The Quad Opteron Alternative

Servers with the newest Intel six-core Xeon hit the market in April. The fastest six-cores Xeons were able to offer up to twice the performance of six-core Opteron “Istanbul”. The reason for this was that the age of the integer core in AMD's Opteron was starting to show. While the floating point part got a significant overhaul in 2007 with the AMD "Barcelona" quad-core chip, the integer part was a tuned version of the K8, launched back in 2003. This was partly compensated by large improvements in the multi-core performance scaling departement: HT-assist, faster CPU interconnects, larger L3 caches, and so on.

To counter this lower per-core performance, AMD's efforts focused on the "Magny-Cours" MCMs that scaled even better thanks to HT 3.0 and four DDR3 memory controllers. AMD’s twelve-core processors were launched at the end of March 2010, but servers based on these “Magny-Cours” Opterons were hard to find. So for a few months, Intel dominated the midrange and high-end server market. HP and Dell informed us that they would launch the "Magny-Cours" servers in June 2010. That is history now, and server buyers have an alternative again for the ubiquitous Xeon Servers.

AMD’s strategy to make their newest platform attractive is pretty simple: be very generous with cores. For example, you get 12 Opteron cores at 2.1GHz for the price of a six-core Xeon 2.66GHz (See our overview of SKUs). In our previous article, we measured that on average, a dual socket twelve-core Opteron is competitive with a similar Xeon server. It is a pretty muddy picture though: the Opteron wins in some applications, the Xeon wins in others. The extra DDR3 memory channel and the resulting higher bandwidth makes the Opteron the choice for most HPC applications. The Opteron has a small advantage in OLAP databases and the virtualization benchmarks are a neck and neck race. The Xeon wins in applications like rendering, OLTP and ERP, although again with a small margin.

But if the AMD platform really wants to lure away significant numbers of customers, AMD will have to do better than being slightly faster or slightly slower. There are many more Xeon based servers out there, so AMD Opteron based servers have to rise above the crowd. And they did: the “core generosity” didn’t end with offering more cores per socket. All 6100 Opterons are quad socket capable: the price per core stays the same whether you want 12, 24 or 48 cores in your machine. AMD says they have “shattered the 4P tax, making 2P and 4P processors the same price.”

So dual socket Opterons servers are ok, offering competitive performance at a slightly lower price, most of the time. Nice, but not a head turner. The really interesting servers of the AMD platforms should be the quad socket ones. For a small price premium you get twice as many DIMM slots and processors as a dual socket Xeon server. That means that a quad socket Opteron 6100 positions itself as a high-end alternative for a Dual Xeon 5600 server. If we take a quick look at the actual pricing of the large OEMs, the picture becomes very clear.

Compared to the DL380 G7 (72GB) speced above, the Dell R815 offers twice the amount of RAM while offering—theoretically—twice as much performance. The extra DIMM slots pay off: if you want 128GB, the dual Xeon servers have to use the more expensive 8GB DIMMs.

Quad Opteron Style Dell
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  • Exelius - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    So, the "product differentiators" from HP are because they primarily sell through partner channels. This is the model IBM used for years; and if you buy your ProLiants through an HP partner and not a mere reseller, they will know the product line and can configure the hardware however you want. HP does very well at making their servers extremely modular, but you do have to know how/where to find the part numbers. Often this information is not widely distributed outside of HP's partner sales trainings (which are very good.)

    If you're used to the Dell model of sales, it doesn't make much sense. But because Dell sells directly, their policies for channel partners are stupid (the wholesale price for a channel partner is often higher than the retail price for a direct customer.) But because partners have more pricing and configuration flexibility from HP, the partner can often beat Dell's direct price with HP hardware (which IMO is higher quality than Dell anyway.) Dell doesn't want their partners to compete with their direct sales and HP doesn't want to jeopardize their partner relationships by pushing direct sales too hard.

    There are pros and cons to each approach, and it all depends on how you handle your IT. If most of it is in-house, but you're not quite big enough to have an internal buyer who would take in the HP sales training, Dell makes a lot of sense because, well, it's easy to understand and most HP partners make their money off implementation services, not hardware sales. Dell is willing to work with you a little more. But if you look at companies where IT is not a core competency (regional insurance companies, banks, etc) a lot of them use consultants to do IT projects/maintenance and HP is making an absolute killing in this market.
    Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    insightful and enlightening comment. Still, there is a point where extremely modular increases the complexity and price too much. The result is a slightly higher price (which is still acceptable, but sometimes also small configuration mistakes which cause extra delays. The result is significant higher cost. And this happens regularly as even trained people make mistakes. So my first impression is that HP should lower the complexity a bit. Reply
  • Exelius - Saturday, September 11, 2010 - link

    True; but without a "direct sales" option they have no way to offer flexible configurations without having a different part number for every possible configuration. Most HP partners will simply use a sales quote tool to build server configurations (in fact; this is exactly what Dell does if you order through their sales reps, which is how you get the best prices.) Again though; HP partners are unlikely to give you a sweetheart deal unless you're buying implementation services from them as well. They make 5-10% on the hardware and 80-150% on the labor,

    But I'll tell you now that HP was consistently able to beat Dell on price through channels over the last 5 years. IMO this is because Dell has the same sort of parts system internally; HP cuts costs by not bothering to make sense of it all and just pushing it off onto their resellers. They're pretty much not interested in selling direct to consumers because it's really just a small part of their business.

    What's killed Dell's profits over the last few years has been that the economic troubles have pushed small/midsize companies to outsource their IT. The companies they outsource to are probably HP partners. Thus, when these companies need hardware, it's likely to be HP (used to be IBM as well; but IBM's support is pathetic and their prices are in the stratosphere.) Channel resellers are also used to dealing with complicated product lists (last I checked Symantec's product book had something like 25,000 individual SKUs) so it's probably not going to change. If anything, it's likely to get worse. For all the consumerization in IT, the enterprise side is only getting more complicated. I wouldn't try to spec a server from HP without at least being familiar with their product line and the options it offers.
    Reply
  • lorribot - Friday, September 10, 2010 - link

    Being a bit weird we buy Dell PCs (and a sprinkling of Macs) and HP servers.

    The Dell PCs are cheap and do the job, initial sales calls are good and they will bust a gut on price but beyond that Dell are pretty much hopeless at support in the UK, with our sales manager changing 3 or 4 times a year and never refering any support calls to some else in the team w have never heard of before.

    Our HP partner, however, is much more stable and they are generally knowledgeable and help configure servers accordingly though for the most part they are actually straight forward until some nutty developer wants 16 disks locally in an 580 g5. And we have a single point of contact for everything.

    You pays your money and you takes your choice.

    Did mention the next day or two (HP) versus 1 to 2 weeks (Dell) delivery options?

    The draw full of 2 GB DDR3 RAM I have from our HP blades is very irritating, I wish HP would supply with out any RAM installed, it is such a waste.
    Reply
  • AllYourBaseAreBelong2Us - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    Nice article but HP either sells DL380 (Intel) or DL385 (AMD) servers. Please correct all the DL387 references. Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    Yes, fixed that one. I always get in trouble with these number codes. Reply
  • Stuka87 - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    Great review, I love it when different platforms are compared to each other. Also happy to see AMD hold their own to the much lauded 7500 series Xeons in a market that I feel AMD is better suited for (VM Servers)

    However, its possible I missed it, but was the price of the SGI system listed anywhere? It would have been nice to see the price of each system as configured side by side.
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    Pictures on Page 5-6 look delicious.

    Nice article
    Reply
  • duploxxx - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    "Comparing the dual with the quad Opteron 6174 power numbers, we notice a relatively high increase in power: 244 Watt. So for each Opteron that we add, we measure 122 W at the wall. This 122 W includes a few Watts of PSU losses, VRM and DIMM wiring losses. So the real power consumed by the processor is probably somewhere between 100 and 110W. Which is much closer to the TDP (115W) than the ACP (80W) of this CPU."

    when the power draw test was done between 2 socket and 4 socket dell 815 did you remain with the same amount of dimms? so you divided the 2 socket amount in the 4 socket?

    On the power draw calculation don't forget that you also have an additional SR5690 to account for which is 18W TDP, electronics etc, so I don't think it will be operating close to TDP but neither to ACP :)

    btw a lot of mistakes with the HP 387G7 which should be 380G7
    Reply
  • eanazag - Thursday, September 09, 2010 - link

    This is a strong article. Very helpful and most of us basically need to decide which customer we are and what matches our apps and usage requirements. Reply

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