RealTime IT News

The Summer of Servers?

NEW YORK & SAN FRANCISCO - Intel never sounded quite so bullish when it was promising to recapture the performance crown as it did today, when it proclaimed to have done just that.

As expected, Intel unveiled its latest Xeon processor, the dual-core "Woodcrest," at simultaneous media events today in New York and San Francisco. The new 5100 series Xeon is Intel's first server chip based on its more energy-efficient Core microarchitecture.

"We're back," crowed Tom Kilroy, vice president, Digital Enterprise for Intel. "We now have undeniable leadership in performance and performance-per-watt and unique platform level differentiation."

AMD will make a less dramatic upgrade to its Opteron line later this summer, but argues it has the steadier, more upgradeable platform. Intel disputes that notion.

"[AMD's] introducing a new socket, that changes their platform," Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, told "We're launching a new platform and we're not apologizing for that. It will be several lifetimes and years long. There is socket compatibility with it for six different processors."

One performance advantage for AMD has been its use of an on-chip, direct connect memory architecture versus Intel's approach of extra cache. But Intel thinks it has matched, if not eclipsed, any disadvantage.

Woodcrest features improved I/O acceleration for moving data that Gelsinger said is key to enabling Web services or the so-called Web 2.0 era of computing.

"With efficient handling of the I/O workload, we've seen a 50 percent reduction in CPU utilization, and a 50 percent reduction in the amount of traffic in internal buses," said Gelsinger.

Intel said it knows of 200 workstation and server announcements in support of Woodcrest. The company expects the 5100 family to be the fastest ramping product in its history. Pricing runs from $209 to $851 in quantities of at least a thousand. "We've priced Woodcrest for volume right away, not at the high end," Boyd David, Intel's general manager of server platforms, told

In addition to the major server manufacturers, IBM, Dell, HP, etc., Intel had several blue chip companies on hand to further bolster it case. "Woodcrest's performance is stunning," said Greg Brandeau, vice president of technology at movie animation studio Pixar.

Intel said it seeded the market with about a thousand white box Woodcrest systems to get feedback, including from Pixar. With the high processing demands of feature length animation, Brandeau said Pixar often runs at one hundred percent server utilization when rendering a movie and was faced with having to build a new data center to accommodate its growing server needs.

For example, he said Pixar's latest movie, Cars, required three times the compute power of the older Toy Story. "Not to make the movie any faster, it's all about making it look better."

Brandeau said the 2.6 GHz Xeon 5100s will fit in 37 percent of the space of the current older, single-core Xeons and yet, draw half the power. "We can get 2.2 times the compute power in the same space," said Brandeau, "because dual-core gives us denser computing."

Another customer, BMW, said it will invest in Woodcrest to better empower its technicians worldwide. One example, an interface to tablet PCs will give the automaker quick access to technical documents and the ability to reprogram software on the spot.

Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds said Intel at a minimum has slowed AMD's momentum and will likely recover some of its lost market share. AMD has about 22 percent of the server market for x86 chips, according to analyst's estimates.

"Intel shows these great benchmarks of how they've improved performance, but what they don't say is how badly they'd fallen behind," Reynolds told

Sun Microsystems said its Opteron-based servers maintain a strong edge for its customer base. "Opteron has stronger floating point performance than Woodcrest and thus is the best solution for high-performance technical and scientific applications," said Andy Bechtolesheim, strategic officer at Sun, in an email sent to

Still, Woodcrest's impressive performance was enough to convince struggling Silicon Graphics, already in Intel's camp, to branch beyond its previous Itanium-only focus. The Mountain View, Calif. company unveiled a new line of cluster solutions based on the Xeon 5100.

Erin Joyce contributed to this article.