RealTime IT News

Dunnington Marks the End of an Era for Intel

Today marks the end of the road for the Penryn technology line, and with it, the frontside bus (FSB) and external memory controller used by Intel processors. With the release of Dunnington, the six-core Xeon chip officially known as the Xeon 7400, Intel moves to the Nehalem architecture.

Services will not be held for the frontside bus, but no one will miss it, except perhaps AMD, which loses a marketing talking point.

Dunnington is designed for the multiprocessor (MP) market, meaning servers with four- to 16-processor sockets. These servers are very high end and usually used in massive processing jobs, such as heavy-duty databases or enterprise resource planning (ERP). However, they can also be used in virtualized environments as well.

Dunnington is pin-compatible with the older Tigerton (Xeon 7300) quad-core MP processors Intel released just a year ago and uses the existing Caneland chipsets, so it will be an upgrade option for owners of existing Tigerton-based servers. A BIOS upgrade will be necessary before making the chip swap.

The frontside bus has been a standard part of the Intel architecture because the memory controller was a separate chip to the CPU. So to access the memory, a CPU had to go out through the FSB to get at the contents of memory.

This is seen as a detriment because it slows down the computer due to the middleman, and in an era of multicore chips, having four cores going through one bus means an inevitable bottleneck.

AMD's Athlon and Phenom desktop processors and Opteron server processors have a memory controller on the CPU, so each CPU core talks straight to memory. AMD (NYSE: AMD) has made this a regular talking point in its marketing materials for years, and Intel has countered with the point that benchmarks show it to be as fast or even faster than Opteron chips anyway, so the FSB is a moot argument.

The Xeon 7400 offers 50 percent more performance while consuming 10 percent less power than the Xeon 7300 at the same clock frequency, according to Tom Kilroy, vice president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise Group at Intel (NASDAQ: INTC).

At the same time, he said the VT FlexMigration technology would offer protection for virtualized servers running the 7300, 7400 and future servers running Nehalem. It won't matter what processor is running, they will all be able to handle the loads.

"It's not just backward compatible in the core technology but forward looking. As Nehalem is introduced over time, there will be this forward compatibility. That's very important in this flexible, virtual market," Kilroy told a gathering of reporters here.

Intel talked about what it saw as "Virtualization 2.0," which covers areas such as high availability, failover and disaster recovery. "These are increasingly becoming more and more important and being considered by IT for the second generation of virtualization," Kilroy said. "It's not just investment protection but a guaranteed level of performance."

Keen for virtualization environments

After Kilroy's presentation, several technology firms gathered to discuss the use of virtualization in-house. Campbell Webb, Oracle's vice president of server technologies IT at the firm, has his work cut out for him. Oracle has done more than 40 acquisitions, and it's up to him to maintain all of the datacenters that come with each purchase, some of them sizable.

Oracle also has a pretty aggressive virtualization plan. It has 600 virtualized servers now and is on its way to 6,000 by next summer. The company is looking to save more than $1 million a year in power and cooling costs alone through virtualization.

To make matters more challenging, he won't get a new datacenter for another two years and still has to deal with an expanding workload within Oracle. But the hex-core 7400 will buy him some time. "We get a tremendous amount of processing capacity and workload with the new racks. We saw a 33 percent increase in throughput with the additional cores and cache," he told the audience.

For Richard Buckingham, vice president of technical operations at MySpace, virtualization of the servers hosting the millions of MySpace pages just isn't feasible. Those servers run at full utilization. But they do use virtualization in-house for developers. For him, the value in the Xeon 7400 is more power in the same power envelope, since it has the same power draw as the 7300 but more cores and cache. "Our racks are limited to 6 kilowatts per rack, which means more empty space in the rack than we'd like. By reducing server numbers while maintaining performance, that's an absolute direct savings in capital expenses right off the bat," he said.

Big systems coming

A number of vendors already have Xeon 7400 servers ready to go, starting with IBM (NYSE: IBM). It will officially introduce two new System x servers on Tuesday at the VMworld conference in Las Vegas, featuring the Xeon 7400, including what IBM claims is the first single server to surpass the 1 million transactions per minute barrier with the TPC-C benchmark.

The TPC-C benchmark, a measure of online transactions per minute, has been dominated by RISC processors, namely IBM's Power and Intel's Itanium, in massive systems or clusters. The highest-performing x86 server was an IBM x3950, with Intel's Xeon 7350 quad-core processors, at 841,000 transactions per minute.

Big Blue is introducing two servers, the System x3950 M2 and Systems x3850 M2. The x3950 M2 is designed for virtualization and can support high-efficiency power supplies and memory technology while still offering up to 37 percent lower overall power consumption.

The x3850 M2 is expandable from four sockets to 16, ideal for Dunnington since it is meant for multiprocessor systems of four or more. It's designed for high-end compute jobs such as ERP and databases on a single server.

They won't be cheap. The x3850 M2 and x3950 M2 will sell for a starting price of $10,389 and $13,389, respectively, when they ship later this month.

Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) is also announcing a new Xeon 7400 server, the PowerEdge R900 rack-mounted four socket, 4U server, with up to 256GB of memory, an embedded Hypervisor and VMware's V-Motion, and support for Sun Microsystems' Solaris on x86.

Dell plans to make a major push to get older SPARC-based servers. The company says the Xeon 7400 systems with Solaris give 2.8x the performance gains and are 75 percent less expensive. "Dell's taking the RISK out of RISC migration" is the tagline of the promotion.

Also in the heavy iron market, Unisys (NYSE: UIS) plans to introduce a new ES7000 Model 7600R Enterprise Server line with Xeon 7400 processors. The 7600R is a 16-socket server designed for large database or transaction processing environments. Unisys claims it can run 64 SQL Server databases on a single four-socket, 6-core Xeon processor configuration with better performance than a commodity server farm of 64 single-socket, dual-core Xeon servers.

The ES7000 supports VMware ESX and Microsoft Hyper-V and has the reliability, availability and scalability (RAS) features for running multiple mission-critical servers on one system.

Unisys plans to introduce secure partitioning, which provides partitioning capabilities at the processor core level, in the first half of 2009. Prices for the ES7000 range from $26,430 to $135,000.

Updated to add comments from the launch event.