RealTime IT News

64-Bit Comes to Xeon

The market for x86 64-bit enterprise processors is now a two-horse race.

On Monday, Intel will launch its long-anticipated Xeon chip, code-named "Nocona." With the launch, it joins AMD in an industry-wide push to exponentially increase the processing capacity of standard chips.

The new processor core is the workstation/server version of Intel's previously released Pentium 4 "Prescott" chip. It will help fill in the gap between the company's current 32-bit Xeon family and its 64-bit Itanium line. The CPU is the first Xeon to support Intel's EM64T 64-bit extensions -- previously known as CT and Yamhill -- and target the high-volume dual processor market.

A spokesperson for Intel declined to discuss pricing and availability but characterized Nocona as a "significant platform launch" in terms of improved memory technology with better DDR2 memory, support for PCI-Express and a faster front side bus.

As with Prescott, Nocona chips are built using the 90-nanometer process. The chips are expected to run at clock speeds between 2.8 and 3.6Ghz and use an 800Mhz front side bus. The processors also support Intel's second generation of HyperThreading technology and 13 expanded Streaming SIMD Extensions 3 (SSE3).

Intel is expected to announce Nocona's corresponding chipsets, including "Tumwater" for workstations, and two chipsets, code-named "Lindenhurst" and "Lindenhurst-VS," that will end up in servers. Board and system manufacturers like Dell, IBM, HP, Fujitsu and NEC are expected to put the new Intel units in their systems.

While Intel has said the 64-bit technology is a welcome addition for Xeon, it is far from being revolutionary. Itanium continues to be the company's advanced chip of choice, which competes with other RISC processors like IBM's Power family and Sun Microsystems' SPARC line.

Martin Reynolds, an analyst with research firm Gartner, points out that the new 64-bit Xeon will target a few specific applications now and the family will be generally useful over time. But it is certainly not a replacement for Itanium.

"The 64-bit extensions will mostly be used in systems with memory spaces larger than 4GB, where the extensions make a significant difference in performance -- for example, application servers using Citrix or RDP," Martin Reynolds, an analyst with research firm Gartner, told internetnews.com. "The x86 family already has a rudimentary and awkward memory extension system, which is used by applications like databases that own the whole server. This will be replaced by the new extensions. Finally, the 64-bit extensions add extra registers. As applications and operating systems are recompiled to use these, performance will improve."

The Nocona extensions are also compatible with AMD's 64-bit extensions. AMD was first to market with an x86 64-bit chip last year, with the debut of its Opteron server and Athlon 64 desktop processors. Intel followed with its roadmap in February 2004.

Despite coming late to the x86 64-bit extension party, Intel said staging a sales rally won't be much of a problem. More than eight out of 10 workstations shipping today are based on Intel architecture, according to industry analysts. Intel architecture also powers more than 85 percent of the total server shipments. And within the dual-processor server segment, which is the largest and fastest-growing server segment, Intel architecture-based servers account for nine out of every 10 servers shipped.