In 2014, Gartner dropped a bomb on the industry. The upgrade cycles that we had been used to during the recession we’re costing us money. Penny-wise and pound-foolish, as Grandpa always used to say.
The short version.
In short, the energy efficiency of x86 computers has increased so much since the recession that maintaining older computers will cost us more in operating expenses than a rip and replace to newer hardware.
The longer version – Now with Supercomputers!
Since the mid-2000s the energy efficiency of x86 servers has been on the upward trend (as you’d expect), but it’s when we look at the world of supercomputers that this trend spikes the most. Beware – we’re about dive into some CPU nerdism.1
It’s time to nerd-splain this confusing thing.
Forgive me2 because this graphic can be overwhelming, but once you see it, the trend is obvious. Pay close attention to the open circles with a red background on the right hand side of the diagram. That’s the count of supercomputers based on Intel x86 architecture. Between 2007 and 2009 the use of Intel X86 based supercomputers skyrocketed from 20% up to 80% of the TOP500 fastest supercomputers in the world. If you include AMD x86, that number jump another few points to around 88%. x86 completely took over the chart.
But it wouldn’t last. Just as the recession officially ended in 2009, you’ll see a slight dip as IBM’s Blue Gene/Q super computer (a RISC-based architecture) topping the TOP500 with the overall speed crown and taking 1st for energy on the Green500 with an efficiency score of 2,100.88 MFLOPS/watt in 2012.
x86 bounced back hard. As of June 2015, both the current speed champion and the Green500 leader use Intel x86 processors. The most energy efficient computer in the world has an efficiency score of 7,031.58 MFLOPS/watt using Intel Xeon E5-2618 CPUs and and ARM co-processor named Pezy.3
A quick aside. Since x86 processors are CISC based, if you want to partake in a major nerd-off between RISC and CISC factions… now’s a great time to be a CISC fan. Of course, if you use and like x86, you have always been a CISC fan. Then again, CISC’s days may be numbered as the popularity of ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) grows with HP, Lenovo, Dell and others starting to research and bring ARM-based servers to market – but that’s a conversation for another day. Oh, and while I’m still in the nerd section, the benchmark for the TOP500 is written in Fortran – and yes, the language is still actively developed.4
That was a bit nerdy – why should I care about this?
Good question, and I have an easy answer. The teams that build supercomputers don’t care about CPU-architecture unless that architecture provides better performance. If you watch the trends in the supercomputer world, they act as a sort of canary in the coal mine for the direction of performance in the industry. Raw performance is nice, but practically, I like to watch the Green500. The price/performance number will help you make budget, and that’s exactly why Gartner recommends upgrading your aging x86 servers now.