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Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Intel’s Boxboro-EX Platform: Providing Revolutionary Advances in Scalability, Performance

Those of us who have been around in the computer industry for a long time - don’t ask me how long - have witnessed the relatively measured and steady progression of processor speeds and capabilities. This prolonged exposure can dull the impact of a new hardware platform launch. Not this time. For me, this one is different. It’s a real “stand up and be noticed” moment in our industry’s evolution. I’m talking about the recent launch of Intel (R) Xeon (R) processor 7500 series, previously referred to as the Nehalem-EX platform, in tandem with recent feature enhancements to Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.

What I find so noteworthy about this new platform launch, consisting of a new CPU chip and accompanying baseboard components, is the range of simultaneous advances. Let’s probe a little deeper on the following areas:

  • Processor scalability
  • Memory scalability
  • Virtualization capabilities
  • RAS features

Processor scalability

Each chip (referred to as a “socket”) can have up to eight processors on it. The hardware manufacturers combine two, four or eight of these sockets onto a conventional computer motherboard, which appears in both blade and conventional rackmount packaging. That amounts to up to 64 processors per motherboard, an impressive jump over previous capabilities from my perspective.

Memory scalability

Over the past few years, the number of CPU cores per socket has steadily increased. During this period the amount of memory that could be accommodated has not kept pace - until now. Included in this new Intel Xeon processor launch is the capacity to access up to 2TB of memory per motherboard!

Think about it - 64 processors, 2TB of memory - all in a commodity packaging of a standard 4U sized rackmount server. I think that’s huge. It was only a year ago when the largest physical system we had in the Red Hat development lab was a monster which occupied two full racks, sounded like a jet engine, was insatiably power hungry and was extremely expensive. This has now been replaced by a box about the size of a file cabinet drawer.

All this talk of the massive scale provided by recently announced computers based on the new Intel Xeon processor raises the question, “Who needs up to 64 processors and 2TB of memory?” Good question. In fact, there are few applications that have been decomposed to harness 64 simultaneous threads. Unless you happen to be running the next genetic sequencing initiative. So how can typical IT shops benefit?

This is where Red Hat Enterprise Linux steps in. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 has been optimized to more efficiently leverage the scalability advances of the new Intel Xeon processor. And careful attention to the preservation of application interfaces means that you can take advantage of the advances while continuing to run your certified applications. Of course, while this is intended to provide a seamless migration path, it still doesn’t solve the challenge of exploiting up to 64 processors.

Virtualization capabilities

Enter Red Hat Enterprise Linux’s integrated virtualization. Red Hat Enterprise Linux has featured virtualization as part of the operating system since the launch of 5.0 in March 2007. And in September of last year, in our Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.4 update, we expanded the virtualization capabilities to include a second hypervisor, based on KVM technology. Red Hat Enterprise Linux virtualization allows you to run multiple virtual guest operating systems, both Linux and Windows, on a single physical computer. And for virtualization, I believe that the bigger the server the better.

More memory and processors equates to more virtualized guests. In fact, our testing has demonstrated that these new Intel systems can accommodate up to several hundred virtual guests. We expect this level of consolidation to allow customers to populate their datacenters more efficiently and densely. And harnessing the increased processor power should mean that fewer sockets full of processors are needed to get the job done. This offers the opportunity for cost savings for applications that are priced on a per-socket basis.

There is a virtualization capability recently introduced into Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 that our engineering team is extremely proud about. This is a capability referred to as SR-IOV, which we jointly developed with Intel engineers. SR-IOV is a chipset feature that allows virtualized guests to have direct access to I/O devices, such as disk and network. In fact, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 is one of the first operating system virtualization platforms to implement SR-IOV. We think that the performance benefits are striking, as an example SR-IOV allows Red Hat Enterprise Linux to be one of the only operating system where virtualized guests are able to fully utilize the throughput of 10G ethernet adapters.

RAS features: Reliability, Availability, Serviceability

As the number of processors and memory grow, so does the probability of hardware failures. Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5 now includes enhanced fault detection and reporting capabilities. It is even designed to allow the user to configure systems to have redundant memory that automatically detects uncorrectable errors and self-heals by disabling faulty components. Previously, this type of feature generally was exclusive to expensive proprietary UNIX systems.

Extreme scalability and high-end RAS features, made more easily consumable by Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5. Augment this with Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization and I expect that you will have a complete, easy-to-manage solution stack that enables “bare metal,” virtualized and cloud deployments. That’s what I’d call true “power to the people” - and no, I’m really not old enough to be a contemporary to the origins of that social slogan!

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