High-end servers point to a new digital era

International Herald Tribune - April 26, 2007
John Markoff

From iht.com

SAN FRANCISCO: Sun Microsystem and IBM plan Thursday to introduce specialized high-end servers systems that provide evidence of a new era in computing.

The Sun machine - an ultrafast video server designed by the company's co-founder Andreas Bechtolsheim - is potentially powerful enough to simultaneously transmit a different standard video stream to every television set in New York City.

In constrast, International Business Machine's new video game server blends a mainframe computer with the company's Cell microprocessors. The result is a server system capable of permitting hundreds of thousands of computer users to interact in a three-dimensional, simulated on-screen world described as «metaverse.»

The machines will be priced beginning at hundreds of thousands dollars. But their arrival indicates that the modern computing world is changing as computer designers hunt for ways to break out the so-called era of the «killer micro» chip.

The development is a reversal of a computing trend that began two decades ago when engineers and scientists began putting together cheap microprocessors by the hundreds and thousands to outpace the processing power of customized supercomputing equipment made by computer designers like Seymour Cray.

It also suggests that the period computer scientists have described as «the end of architecture» - in which the industry appeared to have run out of ideas for gaining more processor power and chose instead to use free space on silicon chips to place multiple processors, or cores - may also now be giving way to a more creative era.

Significantly, both machines are designed to exploit vast new consumer-oriented computing markets made possible by the global expansion of the high-speed Internet. Emerging Web services increasingly require vast amounts of centralized computing to support new applications springing up in desktop computers, living-room set-top boxes and wireless mobile personal digital assistants, or PDAs.

«It's a new era. It's the era of application-specific computing,» said Bernard Meyerson, chief technologist of IBM's Systems and Technology Group.

The computer company has already quietly launched its first salvo into the market for such machines, he said. The Cell microprocessor, which sits at the heart of Sony's Playstation 3 video-game console, embodies much of the specialized design idea on a single chip.

Now those principles are coming to the world of high-end computing Meyerson said.

«We introduced the concept of hybrid computing.» he said. «You admit that one shoe doesn't fit all people. Now we are saying there will be special shoes.»

IBM said its new «gameframe» system was being designed in collaboration with Hoplon Infotainment, a Brazilian game developper that is interested in creating a software layer it calls a «bitverse» to support virtual online worlds.

There are already massively multiplayer games that support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous players, but the IBM system will add an unparalleled level of realism to virtual interactions, Meyerson said.

He argued that in addition to gaming applications, this kind of technology could be used to enhance the performance and scaleability of existing virtual worlds like Second Life, an Internet-based service that crosses the boundary between online entertainment and workplace collaboration.

In contrast to the IBM mainframe gaming machine, the Sun system is intended to offer a new level of performance to the cable and telephone carriers who are intent on deploying advanced interactive television, or IPTV systems.

Bechtolsheim, who designed the hardware for the first Sun workstation while he was a graduate student at Stanford University in the early 1980s, left the computer maker in 1995 to found Granite Systems, which he later sold to Cisco Systems. Bechtolsheim, who was one of the first investors in Google, co-founded Kealia in 2001 with David Cheriton, a Stanford professor who was another early Google investor. In 2004 Google acquired Kealia and Bechtolsheim returned to the company as a designer.

Sun plans to unveil the new system at the TriBeCa Film Festival, now taking place in New York. The heart of the system is a specialized computer called the Sun Fire X4950 Streaming Switch. The device is capable of output up to 320 billion bits of date per second and can be bulked up with two trillion bytes of computer memory, which is used to encode and decode video streams.

Content is stored on specialized server computers that can each hold up to 24 terabytes of data, enough storage capacity to hold up to 9,400 hours of non-HDTV digital video content.

Sun executives said they thought the system would be attractive to cable and telephone companies because it offered the computing capability that would make it possible for carriers to insert individualized advertisements into digital streams of video going to homes. That capability could change the nature of television advertising, making it both more targeted and more profitable.

«This is about entertainment,» Bechtolsheim said. «The real issue is that it only works when you have significant volume.»