What the boss knows -Misrepresentation and The Economist

What's interesting aboutthis is that authors, whoever they were, take nearly 3,000 words to convey a one sentence message:that big software suppliers might soon be forced to modify theirtraditional licensing models in light of both multi-core CPUs and open source competition.

Britain's The Economist is one of the most thoughtful and generally intelligent magazines found on the coffee tables in executive areas. My wife and I subscribe to it mainly for the quality of its writing and the breadth of its coverage - and we look to it for information and interpretation on political and national economic issues we know very little about.

About a year ago they very nearly lost us as subscribers because they let their visceral hatred of American values slime out from behind the editorial wall in the joyous "One Down, Three to Go" title superimposed on the March 18/04 cover photo of Spain's José María Aznar after Spanish voters seemed to respond to a nicely timed mass murder by electing his appeasement-oriented opponent.

Last week (July 16/05) I naively expected to see something of an apology -an admission that their cheering made them partially responsible for the London bombings - but, of course, it wasn't there.

What was there was an unrelated special report on the upheaval in business software. What's interesting about this is that authors, whoever they were, take nearly 3,000 words to convey a one sentence message: that big software suppliers might soon be forced to modify their traditional licensing models in light of both multi-core CPUs and open source competition.

In getting there, however, they perfectly illustrate the one thing I find absolutely intolerable about a lot of popularisations: in the name of keeping things simple, they get essentially every detail wrong. That's acceptable in some Sunday tabloid's Microsoft-sponsored technology insert, but not in The Economist -or any other source selling itself on its credibility because obvious errors in things I know something about lead me to wonder whether their reporting on subjects I know nothing about might not be similarly corrupt.

Let me give you some examples from the report's opening paragraphs:

 

For the past 40 years, companies around the world have grown accustomed to a doubling in computing power every 18 months to two years, fulfilling a remarkable forecast made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, a semiconductor powerhouse based in Silicon Valley.

That's not what he said, not what he meant, and not the time period he cited in 1965.

 

Even as millions more transistors are crammed on to slivers of silicon, Moore's law continues to deliver the goods. But the tricks chipmakers such as Intel and AMD are exploiting to achieve this miracle are changing the whole approach to enterprise computing.

Sun and IBM are creating new CPU and systems architectures, (CMT and Cell, respectively) that seem likely to change the entire industry. AMD, originally with help from Sun engineers, added bandwidth, 64 bit, and dual core capabilities to chips responding to Intel's x86 instruction set, but Intel has consistently just been a follower with its own, basically HP designed, Itanium chip essentially dead in the marketplace.

 

The real losers in the pending upheaval could well be software suppliers. Firms such as Oracle, SAP and IBM, whose industrial-strength programs are the bedrock of business, could be badly bruised in the process. But inevitably, end-users, companies big and small that depend on enterprise software to do their various business transactions, are going to be feeling pressure as well. Over the coming year, they will have to keep their wits about them if they are to prevent their licensing costs from escalating out of control.

For many, the choice could come down starkly to accepting costlier new ways of being billed for the corporate software they depend upon for their likelihoods, or biting the bullet and switching to open source programs that may be free to license but have plenty of hidden costs.

This summarises the entire article, but everything from grammar ("to do their various business") through the understanding of business ("the corporate software they depend upon for their likelihoods") to the bogeyman of "plenty of hidden costs," is at best questionable and at worst laughable: "costlier new ways of being billed"? - what, FedEx collect maybe?

 

The current brouhaha over software licensing has been set off by the arrival this month of large quantities of chips containing two central-processing brains (or cores) on the same device.

I know what they mean, you know what they mean, but in reality nothing they say or imply here is actually true. In reality both Sun and IBM have been delivering dual core CPUs for years and in much larger quantities than either AMD or Intel will in the current quarter. More importantly, this statement implies some kind of parity between Intel and AMD while, in reality, Intel is at least a year behind AMD in this technology with its first "Paxville" dual MP Xeons not due until 2006 and the current Pentium "D" dual for the Windows desktop a mere marketing me too pending next year's "Presler" product.

 

Today, the co-ordinating internal clocks on some of the fastest chips beat at four billion times a second (4GHz in geek-speak).

Actual clocks in Intel CPUs are multiplier based, but even the fastest Intel PC CPU sync doesn't hit 4Ghz.

 

Cooling them down so they can do their job properly has become a costly nightmare, especially when such chips are used in cheap, but poorly ventilated, blade computers (so-called because they are wafer-thin and plugged together in racks like packs of disposable razor blades)

Sun's president, Jonathan Schwartz, actually mentioned this article positively in his blog. but I think it's an unwarranted slur that misrepresents Sun's NEBS-compliant blade servers as well as similar products from IBM. (I think the etiology is probably wrong too, because I think single-board computers were called blades as early as 1979 - long before "rack packs" became common for products like disposable razor blades. Anyone know for sure?)

 

The answer has been to put two or more smaller cores on a single chip. By sharing the workload, the separate cores produce less heat. But being on the same tiny piece of silicon, they still have the speed advantages that come from having all the core's ancillary components within easy reach on the same device.

That would have been almost right if they hadn't said "smaller," had said "splitting" rather than "sharing," and mentioned "power" instead of "speed." It's true that multi-core systems can be designed to reduce power use, and thus heat production, through speed reduction over their single core ancestors, but Sun's power efficient eight core Niagara actually runs each core nearly three times as fast as its UltraSPARC II ancestor -the power savings are mainly coming from change in conductor length, materials, layout, and cross section.

 

Actually, dual-core processing is nothing new. IBM and Sun Microsystems have been supplying processors with two or more cores built into them for several years. But these have been thoroughbred chips for powerful Unix workstations used by scientists and engineers for cutting-edge research.

Again, almost right -except that the dual core CPUs are almost exclusively (the v890z is a workstation) used in servers, not workstations.

 

The difference today is that the dual-core approach is now being applied to the workaday processors that run the vast majority of Microsoft Windows, Linux and other popular programs designed to exploit the internal instructions used by Intel's ubiquitous Pentium processor. Such chips power not only hundreds of millions of personal computers, but also the tens of thousands of back-office servers that dish out data over computer networks to employees throughout an enterprise. It is the latter that are the mainstay of companies' IT departments everywhere.

So close, and yet: the x86 instruction set was developed for Intel's 8086, circa 1978 - not the Pentium. There are, of course, lots of additional instructions that have been added since, but most of them came into the line from the Pentium-Pro, now Xeon (the Pentium III was driven back to 16bit compatibility by AMD's K-series). Most importantly, however, the desktop to server ratio isn't the ten thousand to one indicated, reality is a lot closer to twenty to one.

 

In April, Intel and AMD announced separately that they would be delivering dual-core versions of their high-end processors later this year. AMD has been the first to ramp up production of its new device and has now started delivering its dual-core Opteron processor in commercial quantities for $2,650 apiece. Intel is expected to start shipping dual-core versions of its Xeon and Itanium server chips in volume later this year. Meanwhile, the leading server manufacturers, including Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and IBM, have begun taking orders for their new dual-core computer systems.

Nice pricing reference, but wildly misleading. The April 21st AMD press release on pricing and availability gives the top price of the four- to eight-way server-oriented dual core 875 as $2,649 in quantities of 1,000 and gives other pricing down to $537 for the low end. What's really cute about this, however, is the anachronism conflating mid to late 2006 with mid 2002 as Intel's future, and both IBM and Sun's pasts, are casually restated into the present and some hoped for near future. In reality even Intel's marketing people don't think they'll ship dual core Itaniums in volume any time soon, the first real dual core Xeon isn't due out this year, and both IBM and Sun have been filling orders for real dual-core computer systems for several years.

I could go on, and on, and on but the bottom line is simple: speed read the top twenty repeated phrases in this article as you would a tabloid supplement and it's okay, look a bit deeper, however, and just about everything they say in those 3,000 words, is either wrong or questionable.

This is one article among hundreds or perhaps thousands - similar stuff appears almost weekly in otherwise serious magazines like Forbes, Fortune, and Businessweek. In the past the IT community has generally had the good taste to ignore them, but I think it's time that changed. In this case it's "letters@economist.com" but a more activist response seems generally called for - remember: this is the stuff your bosses read - the stuff that forms the basis for their opinions: opinions they'll bring to bear when judging your budget, your work, and your value.

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