Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Stata prices by speed

Statistics software Stata is now available in a new flavor- Stata MP. From the user point of view, this is exactly the same as Stata SE except a lot more expensive. The differerence is that its number crunching is multi-threaded over multiple CPUs, if you have them.

While the concept of paying more for a higher performing version is alive and well in hardware, where the same chip often comes at a variety of clock speeds, it has largely died out in software.

Many years ago, when a math coprocessor was an option on a PC, you got different versions of software that would make use of it or not. The problem was that with the 486 came on-CPU coprocessors, and they quickly became the norm rather than specialist extras. Very soon it stopped looking like there was a fancy version of the software that did something extra, but that the other version was a just a crippled version.

I think trying to revive this pricing model won't work. Multi-core computing will sweep in very quickly; Intel has indicated plans to reach 32 cores by 2010. But for most that is just a detail, what matters, as always, is that the computer you buy tomorrow will be faster than the one you have today- unless you have the crippled single thread version Stata SE.


Craig Schmidt said...

Wolfram does the same thing with Mathematica. You can use a dual core chip for free with Mathematica 5.2. If you want to use 4 cores, then you buy Mathematica Personal Grid Edition. If you have more, then you need to buy the Grid Edition.

Scientific Computing said...

Yes, I did think about that, but I think that there is a fundamental difference.

The gridMathematica family, like similar products from MathWorks and others offer additional functionality to the user to program in a parallel way, it is not simply a version that utilizes all the CPUs. So I think that makes it genuinly a different product.

Stata MP is identical to Stata SE from the user perspective, and I think that is what makes it hard to sell.

Wolfram does claim that the latest standard Mathematica will multi-thread automatically for some operations (http://www.wolfram.com/products/mathematica/newin52/multicore.html)
and it is this feature that is charged for by Stata.

Of course, one could argue that if more of Mathematica multi-threaded automatically, there would be less need for your own parallel programming commands. But I don't think that would hold for serious programs.

I don't think that there is anything wrong or immoral in charging by thread. Ultimately every software company must find ways to divide up its costs between its users and making those who use/value it more pay more and offering cheaper solutions to those who use/value it less. Whether that is by users, machines, processes, use time, customer income or whatever. I just think this method has faded for good reason.

When I join the in-crowd of multi-core owners (Lenova promise me two weeks), I will certainly be disappointed when Task Manager tells me that one of my cores is idle when the other is working hard.

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