Intel’s new dual-core Xeon targets four-chip servers

Intel Corp. has now brought dual-core technology into all of its Xeon processors for low-end servers with the launch of four new Xeon 7000 series chips, the company announced Monday.

Intel was joined by perennial partners Dell Inc. and Microsoft Corp. on a conference call Tuesday detailing the results of Intel’s plans to accelerate the introduction of its first dual-core Xeon processors. The chip company launched its first dual-core Xeon processor for two-chip servers three weeks ago, and now offers dual-core processors across all of its x86 server products.

Dual-core processors are the chip industry’s answer to the problems caused by excessive heat given off by fast single-core processors built with today’s generation of leaky transistors. A dual-core chip contains two separate CPUs (central processing units) on a single piece of silicon, which allows chip designers to improve performance despite lowering the clock speed of those chips.

Intel’s dual-core Xeon chips were originally expected to launch in the first quarter of next year. However, Intel moved up the launch date partly because the chips were ready earlier than expected after the company rapidly developed the dual-core desktop processor that serves as a blueprint for the Xeon 7000 chips, and partly in response to competitive pressures from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s (AMD’s) dual-core Opteron processors, which have been available since April.

Intel has included hardware support for virtualization technology into the Xeon 7000 processors, but that capability won’t be available until next year as part of a BIOS upgrade, said Kirk Skaugen general manager of Intel’s server platforms groups. The company has been actively promoting its VT technology, which will improve the performance of virtualization software on these servers.

Dell’s new PowerEdge 6800 and 6850 servers will feature the new chips, said Neil Hand, vice president of worldwide enterprise systems marketing at Dell. Those systems can be ordered today, and will start shipping in two weeks. Prices start at around US$6,400, and additional details are available at Dell’s Web site.

IBM Corp.’s new xSeries 460 servers will also use the Xeon 7000 series processors. IBM’s servers use a unique chipset developed by the company called the X3 chipset, while Dell’s use Intel’s chipset technology. The X3 chipset allows IBM to reduce the latency in moving data from the processor to memory, a drawback of Intel’s current processor and chipset designs.

Intel is still reliant on a front-side bus and external memory controller to coordinate the movement of data from the processor to memory, a key link in system performance. In this setup, two or more processors must share a single connection to the rest of the chipset, and the memory controller sits outside the processor.

AMD, on the other hand, has integrated the memory controller directly onto its dual-core Opteron processors and allows each processor to connect directly to the chipset. This means the memory controller can run at the same speed as the processor, and each processor does not have to compete for bandwidth over a shared connection.

“The X3 mitigates the performance deficiencies of the Intel processors,” said Gordon Haff, principal analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. There isn’t enough data to compare the X3 servers to four-processor Opteron servers, but the X3 chipset gives IBM an edge over Dell and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) in approaching the Opteron servers, he said.

HP plans to support the new Xeon 7000 processors in its existing DL580 and ML570 ProLiant servers starting next week, a company spokesman said in an e-mail. HP is in a unique position among server vendors in that it supports both Opteron and Xeon on an almost equal basis.

Four separate Xeon 7000 processors are available. The Xeon 7041 runs at 3.0GHz, uses an 800MHz front-side bus, and uses two Level 2 cache memory banks of 2M bytes each. It costs $3,157 in quantities of 1,000 units. The Xeon 7040 has the same price and features, except that it uses a 667MHz front-side bus.

The Xeon 7020 costs $1,117 and uses two separate Level 2 caches of 1M bytes each, a 667MHz front-side bus, and a 2.66GHz clock speed. The last new chip, the Xeon 7030, costs $1,980 with two 1M-byte Level 2 caches, a 800MHz front-side bus and a 2.8GHz clock speed.