A few years ago, when your users complained about sluggish response times from an application, the solution was easy: upgrade the machine that ran the software and watch it fly. Not so these days.

N-tier applications are running on multiple Web, database and application servers, interacting with legacy back-end systems while pushing asynchronous packets across multiple LAN segments and even across the Internet. With all that happening, you can never assume that a server's aging processor is to blame for pokey performance. In fact, it's highly unlikely that a computer's CPU is your bottleneck. Microprocessor performance has improved so much, especially in the past five years, that it's increasingly difficult to rationalise steady hardware upgrades just to run something a wee bit faster. Most four- and even five-year-old servers seem to handle their application loads just fine.

The serious performance problems in your production systems are elsewhere these days. Undoubtedly they'll be software flaws or network gridlock, neither of which would be fixed with a faster box. So why bother?

Well, starting this year, getting new hardware for hardware's sake in many situations will begin to make sense all over again. That's because next-generation servers using AMD's dual-core Opteron chips are becoming available from the likes of Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems. And next year, Intel and its vast army of reseller partners will be touting computers based on its dual-core microprocessors.

There's been a lot of finger-pointing in the press lately that Intel failed in its bid to counter AMD's Opteron. It's true. AMD beat the world's biggest semiconductor maker to market with dual-core systems. But I think any market-share advantage AMD has today on that front will fade when the Intel juggernaut hits its stride by year's end.

Needless to say, you'll benefit from less expensive and more powerful computers as both companies fight to get bragging rights for the cheapest, fastest, best dual-core technology. There's no downside for IT here.

Dual-core technology promises to give data centre managers distinct advantages in performance, management and operating costs that can't be ignored. Each dual-core microprocessor packs two CPUs on a single die. They communicate with each other over a high-speed fabric. Multi-core systems will probably appear by the end of the decade. These will have four, eight and even more CPUs all packaged together as a single chip.

You can imagine how fast these machines will perform. But if you're running applications tuned by developers to use threads for parallel processing environments, you will get exceptional performance because dual-core systems can leverage software designed for parallel processing.

Another improvement in the dual-core systems will be vastly improved thermals. According to The Uptime Institute (TUI), servers and other data centre equipment have been power hogs, increasing their watts per square meter of data centre space at a rate of 15 per cent or more each year since 1992. TUI estimates that the new technologies being delivered by AMD and Intel should slow that power consumption growth to less than five per cent per year as new dual-core systems replace older, electricity-sucking computers. Intel claims the watts per square metre in the data centre will actually decline with wide deployment of its dual-core systems.

While this is good news for the data centre, does it mean anything for your end users' machines? I think so. Intel and its partners plan to introduce a slew of management tools that will use the extra processor to apply corporate IT policies to a given computer without affecting the end user's experience. You could also use the management processor for security -- to constantly monitor virus signature updates, shut down spyware, delete spam and defend against hackers who attack the machine.

In some situations, you'll even be able to eliminate one PC from certain workers' desks. Stacy Smith, Intel's CIO, says dual-core systems will let him snag one redundant machine from some engineers who now depend on separate Linux and Windows PCs. He will replace them with a single laptop sporting Linux on one CPU in the core and Windows on the other.

So, maybe it's time once again for hardware to drive your upgrade cycle. Think about the improved management and security of systems. Consider the savings on your growing energy bills. And, oh yes, don't forget about the wee bit of extra performance you'll get for your applications. That counts, too.

Mark Hall is a Computerworld editor at large. Contact him at [email protected].