Stories by Tom Yager

More Mac sense and nonsense

Commenters on my Enterprise Mac blog have been begging for an update to my column "Mac sense and nonsense", in which I chronicled the early experiences of a friend who agreed to switch from Windows — her OS for her entire computer-using life — to the Mac. Updates on her progress are among those things I keep meaning to do, but 2007 has been a year of one top priority after another, all strung together. Now, in a cab to LaGuardia Airport, I’m blissfully unable to browse, and that gives me a chance to reflect on some of what I’ve observed as my friend makes the migration.

AMD leads by listening to software makers

AMD has taken great care so far to make sure that Opteron CPUs and system platforms, and the high-end desktop platforms that are derived from Opteron, aren't seen by OEMs and ISVs as requiring any special treatment. In years past, AMD has encouraged me to test Opteron using Intel's compilers, reinforcing the message that AMD does exactly what Intel does, only faster, and in some cases, at a lower cost. With Barcelona, AMD was adamant that I not use Intel's compilers. AMD prefers The Portland Group's compilers, but failing that, AMD would like to see me use the GNU 4.2 open source tool chain, which has never been recognised as a producer of thoroughly optimised code. That's the first time any hardware vendor has sent me to GNU for performance tests. What gives?
Intel's not setting AMD's agenda any more. Intel's compilers no longer produce the fastest Opteron code by virtue of Opteron's hewing to the least capable platform standard. AMD has outgrown Intel. Hardware and software vendors that utilise AMD platforms are now steering AMD's strategy. AMD is all about giving OEMs and ISVs what they want, and that's precisely the approach that originally put Intel on top.
I've always pressured AMD to evangelise to ISVs to get them to optimise for Opteron. Margaret Lewis, AMD's director of commercial solutions, manages ISV relationships and developer programmes for AMD. She thinks it won't work to push ISVs into optimising for Barcelona, even though that effort would pay handsome dividends for software vendors in terms of differentiation. Instead, Margaret is looking to Barcelona to "get [AMD] a seat at the grown-ups' table." She wants AMD and Intel seen as being on "an even keel". That kind of talk has always made me tense up. It seems like AMD is determined to hide its light under a bushel basket.
I've been looking at it all wrong. Getting ISVs to optimise for AMD is backward. AMD is optimising its hardware to meet ISVs' and OEMs' requirements and visions, and that's an approach with a history of success.
The grown-ups' table to which Margaret Lewis refers is where agendas are set and where multi-billion dollar, forward-looking strategies are shaped. It's where Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, IBM, Sun, Apple, VMware, Xen, GNU, and the rest of that tiny number of influential players sit. Ever since the 80386, Intel has been at the head of that table.
Intel used to be a fantastic listener, even though it took its feedback from only one source. Intel's x86 chips, right down to the instruction set, evolved almost entirely on insight derived from a commercial market that kept saying, "We might jump from RISC to x86 if only Microsoft would ..." Intel and Microsoft paired to knock down objections. In my view, Pentium II nailed it, Intel nailed it and customers started bringing Windows into server roles. Make no mistake: Intel and Microsoft created the commercial x86 market, and they did it by working closely together. That is a model for success.
Intel misinterpreted its market dominance to mean that it no longer served the will of its partners. Intel forgot how to listen. The clearest evidence of this is in Intel's "tick tock" hardware updates, with microarchitecture overhauls and speed tweaks happening on alternating years. Tick tock fits no one's strategic objectives but those of Intel, analysts, and those of its shareholders who, like Intel, see the commercial systems market as one in which Intel sets the pace. All they see is Intel forcing system buyers back to the table every two years. That's not in anyone's interest; in private, even system manufacturers admit that they're not wild about the idea. AMD CTO Phil Hester impressed me with the lesson of bringing new technology to market only when customers can feel it. My error is in failing to keep in mind who AMD means when it uses the word "customer". Fortunately, AMD is more focused.
For Barcelona, AMD went back to the major players in PC and enterprise computing, the big guns in systems and software that have been dancing to Intel's drumbeat for so long, to ask them "so, what do you want?" If anything has slowed the pace of uptake of the Opteron platform, it is that ISVs and OEMs aren't yet accustomed to the idea of being asked what they want. They're used to scrambling to be first to support new chip features marketed by Intel. I think AMD was heartened by the first answer it got to its question: "We're all agreed that we don't want the disruption of a new architecture every other year for the sake of keeping a marketing-driven schedule." Then ISVs and OEMs opened up and began talking about what they do want, and the first product of that ongoing interaction is Barcelona.
For example, Barcelona's headline feature, power management, springs from a desire among system software vendors and OEMs not to get stuck managing power in ways that change with every tick in the microarchitecture. Barcelona's power conservation is, using AMD's words, fire and forget. The OS doesn't have to track load and tell the platform when to throttle up or down. It's all automatic, and as AMD gets smarter at it, systems will get more power-efficient whether the OS manages power or not. Another requested feature is 128-bit floating point. It's nice to have SSE (streaming single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) extensions) around, but it'd also be great if apps that need faster and more precise floating point could get it without being rewritten to use SSE for all of their math. Nested Page Tables, marketed by AMD as Rapid Virtualisation Indexing, is another request from major partners who see virtualisation as the way forward.
In the transition from Opteron to Barcelona, AMD has established a track record of being responsive to the needs of OEMs and ISVs. AMD has taken over the lesson that Intel, in its complacency, forgot: CPUs and system platforms live to serve software. AMD won't tick tock along with Intel. Instead, it will march to the drumbeat of IBM, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, Sun, and the handful of others who are probably a bit shocked to see so much of what they asked for in Barcelona, and who look to AMD to continue to architect hardware based on their requirements. Since these major players are all competing by doing better than others at furthering their customers' objectives, AMD's approach gives IT and commercial system buyers the loudest voice of all.

AMD's Quad-Core Opteron versus Intel's Xeon 7300

I should be writing about AMD's Quad-Core Opteron, which was formally launched on September 10, but I feel the need to take a brief detour into a point-by-point contrast between AMD’s latest offering and Intel’s new quad-core Xeon MP 7300-series CPU. The MP designates the CPU for use in four-socket servers, which brings up the first difference between Opteron and Xeon MP: Opteron scales up to eight sockets.

Never get an HTML hacker to do a developer's job

There are few things more frustrating than filling out the last page of a four-page form on what purports to be a web application, pressing Submit and getting “Server failure — try again later”, a SQL error sloppily spewed out to my browser, or “You are not connected to the internet”.

Power6: IBM's mainframe on-a-rack

The advent of the microprocessor created a new class of system that liberated computing from air-conditioned rooms and washing machine-sized storage. But as small systems have evolved, we’ve drifted from the design traits that made mainframes invaluable in critical applications.

Notes from 'The Fringe': New Apple iCandy dazzles

During a Q&A session following Apple’s Town Hall meeting about the iPhone on August 7, no less than Steve Jobs gave me a new nickname: “The Fringe”. He was referring to journalists who solidly panned the iPhone in the first round of high-profile reviews. To my knowledge, membership in that fringe is limited to one.

Leopard is now certified Unix, but is it safe?

I learned recently that OS X Leopard has passed the Open Group’s certification suite for Unix 03, qualifying it to use the Unix trademark. This certification, along with substantial advances in its administrative interface, puts OS X in league with the three big iron Unixes, namely, AIX, Solaris, and HP-UX.

In search of green energy benchmarks

I’ve been working on InfoWorld’s power and cooling benchmark suite (I call them “Greenmark,” but I haven’t officially cleared that name’s use) for several months. Why, you might wonder, haven’t you seen any published Greenmark results? Check out the comments thread f following Ted Samson's Sustainable IT blog entry reporting Neal Nelson’s tests showing that AMD is markedly superior to Intel in server power efficiency. It’s remarkable how much emotion the commenters to Ted’s blog invest in their arguments against Nelson’s findings. Some of these people skip technical objections and go straight after Nelson’s reputation, alleging that AMD had purchased the positive outcome.

Web 2.0 needs Adobe to 'do the driving'

It’s thrilling to imagine rich, responsive, attractive client applications that run identically on desktops, notebooks, and mobile devices, as well as over remote connections. Java promised us that. Then .Net. Neither really came through with the kind of transparency and interoperability that Sun and Microsoft had led us to expect. Now, it looks like we’ve given up on commercial interests closing the application portability gap. Web 2.0 is touted as the way of applications to come, and on the face of it, it’s all about standards. We don’t have to wait for Microsoft, Sun, Symbian, or anyone to do next-generation software for us. All we need is a browser. We’ll do it ourselves.

Other mobile devices compare well with the iPhone

I wish I could have peppered my recent iPhone review with phrases such as "at present", “initially”, or “for the time being”. But Apple doesn’t work that way. If I could be confident that Apple would address the major shortcomings that I saw in iPhone, such as the absence of programmability and the lack of access to even a sandboxed portion of the device’s file system, I’d have given the device a thumbs-up for its platform potential alone.

Steve's ideal iPhone app won't run on an iPhone

As Steve Jobs’ keynote at Apple’s WWDC (Worldwide Developers’ Conference) chugged towards its end with no word of the iPhone, I felt a sense of foreboding. Won’t we even see a detailed demo? Leopard deserved a re-warming, and Jobs pulled that off brilliantly. So where the hell are the pre-sales fireworks for iPhone?

Increase rack density to avoid buying new

Despite the bait dangled by Intel and AMD — twice as much server in the same space every two years — that rule of thumb won’t work for capacity planning. We can’t really count on cores per socket doubling on alternating years, even though I believe it’s likely.

Focus on market share and sharemarket misguided

There was, and still is, no such thing as an IT impulse buy, a system purchase or a switch in suppliers driven by the emergence of a new or updated CPU architecture. Indeed, institutional buyers are still unmoved by that great obsession of punditry, market share. It delights me whenever tech industry odds-makers’ projections, always presented with such certainty, are made hollow by the market that these pundits fancy themselves driving rather than watching.