Chipmakers believe their next generation of processors is stepping up to the challenges faced by chief information officers: growing volumes of data, increasing demands on that data and rising energy costs.
But the technology poised to play the most significant role in tackling all these challenges is virtualisation, according to senior industry figures.
Virtualisation enables hardware to run multiple virtual machines, offering benefits such as the ability to run different operating systems on one server and to increase flexibility, availability and speed of deployment of computing resources.
Chris Ingle, consulting and research director for IDC's European systems group, said the next generation of server hardware needs to perform like never before — fulfilling increasingly complex business needs, without costing the earth.
Speaking at the launch of AMD's new Opteron quad-core server processor in Barcelona — which is touted by the chipmaker as very virtualisation-friendly by enabling more virtual machines to be run per server — Ingle said: "This is all about data. Businesses are dealing with more data, they're trying to get data out to more places in the organisation and to do that they need high-performance systems, and we continue to see performance improvement in all kinds of systems — what we need to see is improvement in virtualisation, in management and in efficiency."
By enabling "more richly configured systems and utilising the capacity of these systems to a higher level than previously possible, virtualisation is the CIO's best friend", according to the analyst.
Ingle said: "Virtualisation is one of the most interesting things you'll see with the next-generation processors — the level of virtualisation support and performance that they bring… CIOs are already starting to reduce the number of boxes [servers] and they're doing that through having more highly configured systems and systems that are more suited to consolidation than systems have been in the past — and we expect that trend to continue."
Virtualisation is already on many chief information officers' to-do lists. The technology is moving into the mainstream, according to analyst house Quocirca, and becoming a standard part of the data-centre environment.
At the launch of AMD's Opteron quad-core chip, code-named "Barcelona", company president and chief operating officer Dirk Meyer explained the rationale behind the multi-core processor. "As an engineering company, we were starting to become concerned at the never-ending quest for clock speed at the expense of energy efficiency," he said.
Quad-core means a chip has four separate microprocessors. But in the line with AMD's energy-efficiency message, the key metric for Barcelona is "performance per watt". The chip has been engineered so under-utilised sections of the core can be powered down to optimise power efficiency for the workload that's being run on the server at that time, explained Meyer.
By implementing Barcelona, a typical user can make annual cost savings of $120,000 (£60,000), Meyer claimed. "What matters at the end of the day is how much energy is consumed by the server system at the plug in the wall. And here's where the Barcelona-based system really shines versus the competition," he said.
Meyer was keen to translate the quad-core energy savings into eco capital — describing the benefit as being equivalent 'to taking 100 cars off the road for a year' or representing 'enough energy to power 50 households'.
Asked why a chief information officer should buy AMD's chips, Giuseppe Amato, director, technical marketing at AMD, pointed to server virtualisation and server consolidation as a means for IT chiefs "to be sure of the trajectory on the costs" for running server farms. It's a simple equation, he said: "Reduction of the number of servers, so you are reducing costs, and reduction of energy to run them."
Joseph Reger, chief technology officer of Fujitsu Siemens Computers, said "there is no better means today to improve energy efficiency than by the use of virtualisation".
But, he warned, virtualisation itself can have an overhead. "You need to provide more hardware support because virtualisation is becoming more complicated," Reger said.
The switch to quad-core technology helps to tackle these overheads, according to AMD.
Steve Jackson, EMEA director for strategic partnerships at VMware — another company with a long history of collaboration with AMD — said: "The four cores on one die/genuine four-core processor offers fantastic scalability, and scalability is great for virtualisation."
Of course, AMD is not alone in the market. Intel has been offering a quad-core processor since November last year by packaging two dual-core chips together — a method clearly easier to implement than AMD's "native quad-core", the launch of which was delayed by several months.
Dennis Szubert, principal analyst at Quocirca, said: "AMD went for what was probably a better engineering solution but it has taken them a lot longer to come to market."