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Handicapping 3000's horsepower: it depends

PreaknessCompanies and organizations which depend on 3000s are seeing a new generation of answers to the classic question, "How much horsepower do I need in my system?" The prior generation's questions were limited to the official, HP-branded hardware for running MPE and IMAGE. Even a performance expert in the community would sometimes reply, "It depends."

This year the same kind of answer can be heard when a company's trying to replace an HP 3000 -- with non-HP hardware that can run MPE software. The Charon virtualization engine, the emulator, will run on a dizzying array of servers, powered by a raft of CPUs. Choosing the best one is just as particular a decision as it ever was, although the range of right answers is greater.

We learned about this matchup challenge when a reader asked what range of hardware installation might serve their A-Class MPE/iX requirements. In other words, how much Intel-based server do I need to procure to match the performance of HP's PA-RISC server? From the Stromasys VP of engineering, we learned this weekend that, as in the great technical tradition, it depends.

"It depends upon what you are trying to do," said Bill Pedersen. "I run different Charon cross-platform virtualized systems on a laptop for development and demos."

"It depends" is an answer that is rarely wrong. And indeed, seeing Charon for the 3000 run for the first time is usually a demonstration launched on a laptop. We've seen the demos trigger slack-jawed amazement. However, a production-grade system demands a great deal more server. How much depends on what you'd like to emulate: not just the hardware itself, but the demands of your software application, too.

The hardware investment level I like to toss back as an answer is not more than $15,000. But that's really a midpoint, accounting for fast and redundant disk, ample IO, responsive DRAM. In short, everything that HP wired into its 3000 hardware, albeit for a much higher price.

What's obvious is that specifying MPE-ready hardware isn't any less crucial than it ever was. But buying improvements on the horsepower is less costly. Additional Intel-based CPU servers are a commodity item, after all.

In specific, Stromasys pulled together a long list of CPUs about 18 months ago that it considered a best fit for the demands of virtualization. 

CHARON-HPA/3000 A-Class emulators will run on CPUs as slow as 2 GHz (although this is not recommended). Many Intel CPUs not shown below can be used to run our A-Class emulators. Recommended CPUs (3.5 GHz or faster) are highlighted.

This list only includes CPUs that run close to, or faster than, 3 GHz.  Entire CPU families (like the Xeon E7) are omitted if they contain no members that qualify.

These release notes from the first year of the sale of Charon are followed by a long list of Intel-based CPUs. The favorites are on the shaded lines. What seems important in the list are the number of cores and threads a processor supports, as well as the speed of the CPU's chip. The table Stromasys has been sharing also points to on-chip support for Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE) 4.1 or 4.2.

Stromasys table excerptFour cores, 8 or more threads, and a high clock rate stand out in the table. The processors selected were all running at 3.4 GHz or faster. But the raw numbers on the chips are only a starting point. 

"The real issue is all job streams are different," Pedersen explained, "and so the best measure is proof of concept with your own job mix to validate operation." The only way to be sure your target system will deliver enough horsepower is to test it with your actual programs and data.

How did the community do this in the HP-only era of MPE hardware? Some managers over-specified just to be sure they were doing enough of an upgrade. Companies like Lund Performance Solutions, and even HP, had performance measurement software that tracked whether you were CPU-bound, IO-constrained, or storage-hungry. Memory and disk could be added, but the wrong CPU was not cheaply replaced. HP might take back one in a trade-up.

HP Envy Phoenix 810In contrast, specifying enough horsepower for emulation of 3000 hardware might just cost as little as $2,149 even if you get it wrong. For example, in the Stromasys table, a Core i7 processor 4820K is favored, one that runs at 3.7GHz. You can find this CPU in the HP Envy Phoenix 810se Desktop, outfitted with 24GB of memory and 3TB of disk. Does it have the IO you'll need to support transactions across a full complement of users? What about redundant storage?

The Envy Phoenix is sold as a premier gaming system, so it's fast. Beefy enough to replace an N-Class? Hey, the Envy Phoenix even has liquid cooling. But the best system to replace HP's air-cooled hardware isn't measured on specs alone.

What's happening more often today is customers having a system built to order with a recommended CPU like the Core i7 4820K at its heart. What's more, in the months and years to come, these virtualized 3000s will be specified at cloud providers like Rackspace -- where the only important metric will be response time, as specified in the Service Level Agreement. Existing VMware servers already running at most companies need not apply, according to Stromasys engineers.