Intel Pushes Xeon to Eight Cores

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Intel today announced the latest high-end part, the Nehalem-EX processor, an eight-core beast first announced late last year with enterprise-scale features that rival Intel’s Itanium processor.

Currently, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) has the six-core Xeon 7400, codenamed “Dunnington,” for its high-end servers and the four-core Xeon 5500 Nehalem-EP processor. While the 5500 fits into the mid-range of servers with its fast performance, courtesy of a new design architecture, the Nehalem-EX is an entirely other matter.

It’s not just a doubling of cores from four to eight. The Nehalem-EX also has 24MB of shared cache, four high-speed QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) links, turbo boost and Intel hyperthreading. The Xeon 5500 has just 8MB of cache and three QPI interfaces.

More important, the Nehalem-EX will have twice the memory capacity of the EP because of its scalable memory interconnects with memory buffers. Older Xeon processors used Fully Buffered DIMM (FBDIMM), which was notorious for its high power draw.

With the memory buffers on the system board, FBDIMM is no longer needed, so EX systems can be DDR3-based. Also, these buffers allow for much more memory support. The –EX can handle 16 memory sticks per socket, whereas the 5500 supported eight per socket.

Boyd Davis, general manager of the server platforms group marketing at Intel, said with twice the memory — along with enterprise reliability, availability and scalability (RAS) features, and threads and caching for virtualization, this is a much more powerful Xeon than the 5500 family.

“The reality about the high-end Xeon is scalability and performance,” he told a gathering of reporters during a briefing today.

Compared with the six-core Xeon 7400, the Nehalem-EX will have nine times the memory bandwidth, 2.5 times the database performance, 1.7 times the integer throughput and 2.2 times the floating point throughput.

It also comes with VT FlexMigration, a feature that supports virtualization.

“In a virtual environment, where you want to move virtual machines around while apps are live, it’s critical to maintain instruction set compatibility,” Davis said. “We came out with FlexMigration last year to pool resources and make sure apps work.”

Almost Itanium

New to Xeon is a RAS feature called MCA recovery, or machine check architecture. It checks for CPU, memory and I/O errors and works with the operating system to correct and recover from otherwise fatal errors.

Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat and VMware all issued statements of support, saying their operating systems would support Xeon’s RAS MCA by the time the EX is released.

That should be some time next year. Intel was not forthcoming on the speeds of the cores or its name, beyond “Xeon,” and would only say the EX will go into production later this year and be shipping in systems next year.

These features sound very similar to the ones in Intel’s Itanium processor, which is aimed at the mission-critical marketplace. But Davis said there is no risk of cannibalization.

“The primary reason for choosing these is software,” he said. “Customers are looking for a solution-level approach. The portfolio of Itanium solutions is strong and we’re going to keep pushing Xeon as hard as we can to meet the broadest market possible.”

He added that the MCA in Itanium is a bit more robust and some Itanium features are not in the Nehalem-EX, “but the goal is to take learnings from that project [Itanium] and inject it into Xeon over the life of the roadmap.”

But chip analyst Nathan Brookwood isn’t buying it.

“There certainly would be some Itanium sales where instead of buying Itanium systems, you might be inclined to get something like these EX systems,” said Brookwood, research fellow with Insight 64.

He said there is a blurring of the lines between Xeon and Itanium, from an unlikely source of pressure.

“This is a much more sensible strategy for Intel. They could keep Xeon in the low end and leave the high-end to Itanium, but AMD is making moves into the high-end space with Opteron,” he said. “So you either move Xeon up to compete with AMD or you’re going to lose to Opteron.”

AMD’s Opteron has done well in the four-way and above market, which is small but lucrative. Brookwood said the Nehalem-EX is an excellent response.

“It’s definitely different,” he said. “There’s more cache, more QPI interfaces, glueless eight-way. This is a really awesome chip.”

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