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What Makes Server Applications Different?

The large caches and high integer core (cluster) count in one Orochi die (four CMT module Bulldozer die) made quite a few people suspect that the Bulldozer design first and foremost was created to excel in server workloads. Reviews like our own AMD FX-8150 launch article have revealed that single-threaded performance has (slightly) regressed compared to the previous AMD CPUs (Istanbul core), while the chip performs better in heavy multi-threaded benchmarks. However, high performance in multi-threaded workstation and desktop applications does not automatically mean that the architecture is server centric.

A more in depth analysis of the Bulldozer architecture and its performance will be presented in a later article as it is out of the scope of this one. However, many of our readers are either hardcore hardware enthusiasts or IT professionals that really love to delve a bit deeper than just benchmarks showing if something is faster/slower than the competition, so it's good to start with an explanation of what makes an architecture better suited for server applications. Is the Bulldozer architecture a “server centric architecture”?

What makes a server application different anyway?

There have been extensive performance characterizations on the SPEC CPU benchmark, which contains real-world HPC (High Performance Computing), workstation, and desktop applications. The studies of commercial web and database workloads on top of real CPUs are less abundant, but we dug up quite a bit of interesting info. In summary we can say that server workloads distinguish themselves from the workstation and desktop ones in the following ways.

They spend a lot more time in the kernel. Accessing the network stack, the disk subsystem, handling the user connections, syncing high amounts of threads, demanding more memory pages for expending caches--server workloads make the OS sweat. Server applications spend about 20 to 60% of their execution time in the kernel or hypervisor, while in contrast most desktop applications rarely exceed 5% kernel time. Kernel code tends to be very low IPC  (Instructions Per Clockcycle) with lots of dependencies.

That is why for example SPECjbb, which does not perform any networking and disk access, is a decent CPU benchmark but a pretty bad server benchmark. An interesting fact is that SPECJBB, thanks to the lack of I/O subsystem interaction, typically has an IPC of 0.5-0.9, which is almost twice as high as other server workloads (0.3-0.6), even if those server workloads are not bottlenecked by the storage subsystem.

Another aspect of server applications is that they are prone to more instruction cache misses. Server workloads are more complex than most processing intensive applications. Processing intensive applications like encoders are written in C++ using a few libraries. Server workloads are developed on top of frameworks like .Net and make of lots of DLLs--or in Linux terms, they have more dependencies. Not only is the "most used" instruction footprint a lot larger, dynamically compiled software (such as .Net and Java) tends to make code that is more scattered in the memory space. As a result, server apps have much more L1 instruction cache misses than desktop applications, where instruction cache misses are much lower than data cache misses.

Similar to the above, server apps also have more L2 cache misses. Modern desktop/workstation applications miss the L1 data cache frequently and need the L2 cache too, as their datasets are much larger than the L1 data cache. But once there, few applications have significant L2 cache misses. Most server applications have higher L2 cache misses as they tend to come with even larger memory footprints and huge datasets.

The larger memory footprint and shrinking and expanding caches can cause more TLB misses too. Especially virtualized workloads need large and fast TLBs as they switch between contexts much more often.

As most server applications are easier to multi-thread (for example, a thread for each connection) but are likely to work on the same data (e.g. a relational database), keeping the caches coherent tends to produce much more coherency traffic, and locks are much more frequent.

Some desktop workloads such as compiling and games have much higher branch misprediction ratios than server applications. Server applications tend to be no more branch intensive than your average integer applications.

Quick Summary

The end result is that most server applications have low IPC. Quite a few workstation applications achieve 1.0-2.0 IPC, while many server applications execute 3 to 5 times fewer instructions on average per cycle. Performance is dominated by Memory Level Parallelism (MLP), coherency traffic, and branch prediction in that order, and to a lesser degree integer processing power.

So is "Bulldozer" a server centric architecture? We'll need a more in-depth analysis to answer this question properly, but from a high level perspective, yes, it does appear that way. Getting 16 threads and 32MB of cache inside a 115W TDP power consumption envelope is no easy feat. But let the hardware and benchmarks now speak.

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  • Kevin G - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    I'm curious if CPU-Z polls the hardware for this information or if it queries a database to fetch this information. If it is getting the core and thread count from hardware, it maybe configurable. So while the chip itself does not use Hyperthreading, it maybe reporting to the OS that does it by default. This would have an impact in performance scaling as well as power consumption as load increases. Reply
  • MrSpadge - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    They are integer cores, which share few ressources besides the FPU. On the Intel side there are two threads running concurrently (always, @Stuka87) which share a few less ressources.

    Arguing which one deserves the name "core" and which one doesn't is almost a moot point. However, both designs are nto that different regarding integer workloads. They're just using a different amount of shared ressources.

    People should also keep in mind that a core does not neccessaril equal a core. Each Bulldozer core (or half module) is actually weaker than in Athlon 64 designs. It got some improvements but lost in some other areas. On the other hand Intels current integer cores are quite strong and fat - and it's much easier to share ressources (between 2 hyperthreaded treads) if you've got a lot of them.

    MrS
    Reply
  • leexgx - Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - link

    but on Intel side there are only 4 real cores with HT off or on (on an i7 920 seems to give an benefit, but on results for the second gen 2600k HT seems less important)

    where as on amd there are 4 cores with each core having 2 FP in them (desktop cpu) issue is the FPs are 10-30% slower then an Phenom cpu clocked at the same speed
    Reply
  • anglesmith - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    which version of windows 2008 R2 SP1 x64 was used enterprise/datacenter/standard? Reply
  • Lord 666 - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    People who are purchasing SB-E will be doing similar stuff on workstations. Where are those numbers? Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    Probably waiting in the pipeline for SB-E base Xeons. Socket LGA-2011 based Xeon's are still several months away. Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    I'm not so sure I'd fault AMD too much because 95% of the people that their product users, in this case, won't go through the effort of upgrading their software to get a significant performance increase, at least at first. Sometimes, you have to "force" people to get out of their rut and use something that's actually better for them.

    I freely admit that I don't know much about running business apps; I build gaming computers for personal use. I can't help but think of my Father though, complaining about Vista and Win 7 and how they won't run his old, freeware apps properly. Hey, Dad, get the people that wrote those apps to upgrade them, won't you? It's not Microsoft's fault that they won't bring them up to date.

    Backwards compatibility can be a stone around the neck of progress.

    I've tended to be disappointed in AMD's recent CPU releases as well, but maybe they really do have an eye focused on the future that will bring better things for us all. If that's the case, though, they need to prove it now, and stop releasing biased press reports that don't hold up when these things are benched outside of their labs.

    ;)
    Reply
  • JohanAnandtech - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    The problem is that a lot of server folks buy new servers to run the current or older software faster. It is a matter of TCO: they have invested a lot of work into getting webapplication x.xx to work optimally with interface y.yy and database zz.z. The vendor wants to offer a service, not a the latest technology. Only if the service gets added value from the newest technology they might consider upgrading.

    And you should tell your dad to run his old software in virtual box :-).
    Reply
  • Sabresiberian - Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - link

    Ah I hadn't thought of it in terms of services, which is obvious now that you say it. Thanks for educating me!

    ;)
    Reply
  • IlllI - Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - link

    amd was shooting to capture 25% of the market? (this was like when the first amd64 chips came out) Reply

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