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Software holding back spread of multicore chips

Software vendors are slow to take on the heady challenge of upgrading their apps. By Sharon Gaudin

By Sharon Gaudin
September 29, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Trying to boost the IT capabilities at his digital forensics company, Brian Dykstra invested in servers equipped with quad-core processors. After all, he figured, having more cores means a more powerful machine that can do far more work than single-core systems.

However, after shelling out money for the new technology, Dykstra found that three of the four cores were sitting idle because the software he was running wasn't built to make use of multiple cores.

Dykstra isn't alone in his disappointment with the lack of software for multicore chips. As hardware makers increase the number of cores in single chips, most software simply isn't keeping pace, creating a huge drag on efforts to take advantage of potentially significant hardware-based performance improvements.

In order to see that performance boost, software running on multicore chips must be built to let different cores handle different tasks in an application at the same time.

Dykstra noted that while some server software from major vendors such as Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. has been partially multithreaded, there is a dearth of such applications.

Once Dykstra, co-founder and a senior partner at Jones Dykstra & Associates in Columbia, Md., had compiled a list of his firm's most critical software, he picked up the phone and started haranguing the vendors to add support for the chips. He didn't identify the vendors he contacted. Some IT managers have been able to cut costs and hardware needs by using the multicore technology in virtualization projects.

For instance, when a company virtualizes with multicore systems, each core is assigned its own virtual machine, allowing each to run a separate application.

Virtualization on multicore chips is working out very well for Bruce McMillan, manager of emerging technologies at the U.S. division of Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Marietta, Ga. He has scaled up his virtual machine total by 50% while cutting the number of physical servers in his data center almost in half.

It's really disappointing when you fire up the quad-core and then you see it's only running on one core.
Brian Dykstra, Co-founder and Senior Partner, Jones, Dykstra & Associates

McMillan said he had been running 100 virtual machines on eight servers with single-core processors. He added two dual-core servers about a year ago and was able to scale from 100 to 150 virtual machines.

About a month ago, Solvay installed a quad-core server and retired three single-core servers. The company is now in the process of adding two more quad-core servers, which will replace all of its remaining single-core systems, according to McMillan.

"It's saved me $500,000 just in hardware costs" so far, he said. "I can have much higher consolidation ratios than I had before."

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