Intel’s Xeon E7 v4, Moore’s Law and Advanced Analytics

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  June 8, 2016

Coming a little over a year after Intel celebrated the 50th anniversary of Moore’s Law, the company’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 processor family offers a chance to consider where Intel is going in relation to where it’s been, reflecting the past while foreshadowing what’s to come.

Since that celebration, Moore’s Law—Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation that semiconductor process manufacturing and related performance improvements predictably doubled every 18 months or so—has been cited more by the company’s competitors than Intel itself. That’s mainly because prior to the anniversary, Moore noted in an interview that his original observation was nearing the end of its useful life.

Other silicon vendors have attempted to get competitive mileage out of Moore’s Law’s coming demise but most of their pronouncements ring hollow. Intel has obviously benefitted hugely from achieving the process improvements Gordon Moore observed. But Moore’s Law represents a small fraction of the innovations the company reliably delivers to its partners and customers.

Pretending otherwise is like suggesting that the evolutionary success of Ford Motors is due entirely to the improvements in assembly line manufacturing founder Henry Ford instituted early in the 20th century.

Designing for the future system requirements

So what does Intel’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 family say about where Intel has been and where it’s going? First, the company’s steady performance has depended as much on its ability to analyze the direction of markets and needs of customers as it has on developing new microprocessor technologies and features.

But I believe that point became ever-more important as Xeon-based servers were increasingly used to support complex applications and workloads typically associated with traditional RISC and mainframe systems. Evidence of this approach became particularly strong about a decade ago, when Intel introduced its first Core-based Xeon microprocessors.

Since then, numerous Intel Xeon solutions have steadily evolved to effectively support the requirements of demanding enterprise-class IT scenarios and solutions, including virtualization, mission critical applications and advanced analytics.

Intel’s Xeon E7 v4 family and advanced analytics

That last point – advanced analytics – is particularly important for understanding Intel’s latest additions to its Xeon processor line. The new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families offer a range of enhancements, including robust performance, advanced reliability, improved security and what Intel calls the industry’s “largest memory capacity per socket” – which can total up to 24TB of memory in an eight-socket system. That will allow conventional four- and eight-socket systems to be used for existing and emerging in-memory database and advanced, real-time analytics applications.

SAP’s HANA in-memory database platform is the best known of these but a number of new and emerging in-memory platforms are vying for a piece of the growing analytics market for advanced analytics. But at the same time, SAP and other vendors are using in-memory technologies to dramatically boost the performance of core enterprise applications, including online transaction processing (OLTP), supply chain management (SCM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP).

Intel’s memory capacity improvements, along with hardware-enhanced security and other features should allow the Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 family solutions to capture a substantial portion of sales in those markets.

Power positioning

The go-to-market positioning in Intel’s Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 announcement focuses on IBM’s POWER8-based solutions, an interesting competitive development. That’s likely due to IBM’s focus on and success in advanced analytics, along with growing interest in the OpenPOWER Foundation (which supports development of solutions based on IBM’s open source Power processor architecture). IBM also enjoys a longstanding partnership with SAP, and prior to selling the assets of its System x organization to Lenovo, provided the Intel-based reference architecture for SAP HANA (a role taken over by Lenovo). Additionally, SAP recently certified some IBM Power System offerings for HANA which IBM is actively promoting. That may have influenced Intel’s decision to target POWER8 with Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 but how successful is that strategy likely to be?

That depends on specific competitive scenarios and markets, but at the end of the day this isn’t a simple silicon vs. silicon matchup.

The enhancements Intel has delivered in the Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families are significant, enabling systems based on the new chips to support a wide range of cutting edge, enterprise-class capabilities. But IBM is delivering POWER8 processors in solutions fully integrated and optimized for enterprise applications, including advanced analytics. The company has also invested over a decade and $25B+ on analytics-related acquisitions and R&D, and is actively supporting emerging analytics technologies, including Hadoop and Apache Spark.

Suffice it to say that the Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families will provide Intel server OEMs the most powerful x86 engines they have ever had for developing advanced analytics and other enterprise solutions. What those companies do with these technologies and how well they succeed is beyond the control of Intel or any other component manufacturer.

Final analysis

Overall, Intel’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families constitute some of the most powerful and innovative server silicon Intel has ever developed. Performance, resilience and security enhancements, along with a significant increase in memory capabilities should make these newest Xeon solutions popular with both server vendors and their customers.

More to the point, the Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families are arriving at market just as wider demand for advanced analytics systems and solutions is beginning to ramp. Part of this is economic—driven by lower costs for key components and competition among interested vendors. But part is also due to the value those solutions offer businesses that are drowning in data assets and desperate for competitive advantage.

Moore’s Law has helped Intel achieve significant current and past success but reliably delivering continuing innovations that address critical customer needs is the key to the company’s future. Intel’s new Xeon E7-8800/4800 v4 families are just those kinds of solutions.

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