Quad-Core Processors: Do Small Businesses Need Them?

We’re all familiar with the competitive drive to buy or build the biggest and the best. It’s human nature and the reason we have clichés such as “keeping up with the Jones’.” In the computer processor world, it’s a particularly prevalent mentality. The gold standard used to be the processor with the most Megahertz (MHz). The focus then moved from Megahertz to dual-core processors – and now to quad-core.

This latest wave of processors – essentially packing four processors, or cores, onto one chip – is, of course, all the rage. But it raises big questions: Should small businesses rush out to buy them? Should they opt instead for dual-core (two processors on a chip) or single core gear, or should they just hang on to those dusty old boxes for yet another year? 

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) and Intel Corp., are obviously keen for small businesses to adopt right now. “Today’s global digital economy is pushing businesses of all sizes to handle ever growing amounts of data and transactions,” said Bob Brewer, chief vice president for marketing and strategy at AMD. “The advantage offered by a quad-core system is its ability to handle more complex work environments more effectively.”

Server Quad-Core
The basic idea behind multi-core chips is to pack more processors into the same amount of real-estate as a single-core processor and thereby increase the performance. In some cases, you gain double the performance from a dual-core over a regular processor, for example, and in other cases it is a bit less.

Dual-core chips were released a year or two ago and now quad-core models are available. Intel was first out of the gate with quad-core server processors and established a lead of almost a year over AMD. Intel offers a wide range of multi-core chips and a multitude of options. Most recently, it unveiled a set of quad-core processors specifically designed for larger servers running applications that require high performance, reliability and scalability.

Intel claims its quad-core Xeon 7300 series processors deliver more than twice the performance and three times the performance-per-watt over the company’s previous generation of dual-core products. “With the Xeon 7300 series, Intel delivers new levels of performance and performance-per-watt,” said Tom Kilroy, Intel vice president and co-general manager of the Digital Enterprise Group.

While these could be characterized as some of the higher-end server processors, plenty of Intel’s other quad-core models fit the needs of small business. Low-power versions, for instance, are available which use only 50 watts.

But Intel no longer has it all its own way as AMD recently released an extensive quad-core line. The company offers several quad-core AMD Opteron processor models, including lower-power versions.

After leading the performance race for a couple of years with its Opteron processors, AMD fell behind in the quad core race. So has it closed the gap? Damon Turnbull, client/server planning and program manager, at Dell believes AMD is now on a par with Intel.

“Our tests have shown that these new quad-core processors offer performance that is competitive with Intel’s offering, and significantly better for certain technical applications, which are used by scientific and engineering departments,” he said. “We expect that the Opteron story will get even better in coming months as higher-frequency quad-core Opteron processors become available.”

The consensus among analysts appears to be that Opteron competes well against quad-core Xeon on certain usages. AMD claims, for instance, that the performance of VMware virtualization software by EMC will be 79 percent better on its quad-core Opteron compared with the previous generation, and of course, better than Intel Xeon quad core due to specific virtualization performance features built into its chips. But just how relevant is all this to the small business?

“Relative to small business [or any] deployments, the problem here is getting enough workload to use up all of those cores,” said John Enck, an analyst with Gartner Inc. “Very few applications are written to take advantage of that many cores. What are small businesses going to run on a quad-core server that can use that kind of capacity?”

Intel and AMD, understandably, don’t support that conclusion. “On the server front, quad-core processors can deliver a more robust all-in-one office or departmental server,” said Brewer. “Quad-core AMD Opteron processors offer better capacity and response time, virtualization capabilities and superior scaling that can help SMB customers grow, adapt as their business demands require.”

In addition, he noted that quad-core Opteron-based servers support software like Windows Small Business Server, providing file and print, email, Web serving and database capabilities. “Running everything on one server provides lower hardware, infrastructure, and management costs while quad-core capabilities provide the capability to handle peak loads and offer headroom for business growth,” said Brewer.

In general, though, it would appear that quad-core might be overkill for the average small business-server deployment. However, companies that run high-performance systems or certain technical or virtualized applications should thoroughly investigate the potential gains available through quad core.

Quad-Core Desktops and Laptops

Desktops and laptops offer fewer choices. Quad-core AMD Phenom desktop processors are expected to launch in December 2007. Brewer said AMD won’t bring quad core to notebooks till 2009 with the first “Fusion” processor family.

In the meantime, he believes that small business notebook customers are still best served by dual-core processors for all their computing needs. Over time, however, Brewer sees the market evolving and the software catching up to the point where more small business customers will use multiple applications simultaneously, or require outstanding graphics and wireless performance. Such customers, he said, will benefit from quad-core notebooks.

“For desktops, small business customers who are looking to push the limits of productivity with intense multitasking or are seeking better visual computing experiences are ready for quad-core processors,” said Brewer.

Intel, meanwhile, already has quad-core laptop and desktop products on the market. It markets the Core 2 Quad processor to multimedia desktop enthusiasts or individuals who conduct extensive multitasking or harness higher-end applications.

For laptops, the company has released the Core 2 Extreme.

Purchasing Priorities
For certain small businesses, quad-core processing power may bring a whole new realm of processing capability and provide the business with a significant boost in productivity. For others, though, quad core may not be necessary – for now. 

“We continue to see a widening gap between CPU capacity and the software’s ability to use that capacity,” said Enck. “Therefore as long as quad-core products are premium priced over dual-core (or single-core) products, we would advise the continued use of dual-core.”

He makes a very good point. Intel’s historic policy is always to price its cutting edge chips well above lesser processors. Single-core and dual-core models, on the other hand, being “less desirable” are priced more attractively – as though they were last year’s fashion that is now available on the sale’ rack.

And as for which is better, both AMD and Intel can put forth benchmarks and numbers to highlight advantages in this or that area. But as the AMD quad-core chips have just appeared on the market, it is still too early to tell who, if anyone, is in front.

“On the AMD vs. Intel quad front, I haven’t seen enough hard data to draw any conclusions yet,” said Dan Olds, principal at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. “More research remains to be done to determine which processor is best for specific functions.”

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from
Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book,
Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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