Intel launches Nehalem server chips

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. – Intel Corp. is calling its Xeon 5500 processor series, announced Monday, the most significant server launch since its Pentium Pro processor in well over a decade, with the innovation not just focused on the chipset core, but the platform as a whole.

Formerly codenamed Nehalem-EP, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip manufacturer’s Xeon 5500 series offers several technologies designed to enable a computing environment that is scalable, dynamic, virtualized, energy efficient and flexible, especially given the today’s constrained IT budgets.

“We see this as significant and as tranformational as the Pentium Pro was in its day,” said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice-president and general manager of the digital enterprise group with Intel.

But the focus isn’t solely on the processor because “a great engine also needs a great transmission,” said Gelsinger, referring to other “intelligent” platform technologies.

For instance, Turbo Boost Technology is a real-time and dynamic control engine to monitor thermal and workload environments by having the capability to shut off or “turbo up” cores. Other platform capabilities include Virtualization Technology FlexMigration, Hyper-Threading Technology for better performance and scalability, integrated memory controller, QuickPath Interconnect.

The combination of the server processors and accompanying features – like integrated memory controllers and extended memory support – form a platform that, as a whole, make things like virtualization possible, said Shane Rau, San Mateo, Calif.-based computing semi conductor analyst with research firm IDC Ltd.

“Something like an integrated memory controller isn’t inherently about virtualization,” said Rau, “but it will benefit virtualization more in a sense of balance between the memory subsystem and the processor subsystem, since virtualization puts quite a load on both memory and the processor.”

As the Web grows to what Intel envisions will be at least 15 billion Internet-connected devices by 2015, the Xeon 5500 series will provide the infrastructure for that “embedded internet of the future,” said Gelsinger.

The hardware is based on Nehalem, a new microarchitecture announced by Intel last year. Intel already released Core i7 last year, a suite of three desktop processors and the first processors built using the Nehalem architecture.

Having its foundation in the Nehalem architecture will have definite market impact, but over time, said Rau. “It’s the migration of Nehalem implemented on the desktop, and server, mobile, workstations over the course of 2009 and into 2010.”

A customer of the newly-announced Xeon 5500, Town & Country, Mo.-based outsourcer Savvis Inc., is currently experiencing its highest growth in cloud virtualization. Vice-president of engineering Josh Crowe said the new processor series makes the business proposition of server consolidation into a virtualized environment “massively compelling” and an “opportunity to offer performance and scale and cost reduction to customers.”

Another customer, Louisville, Ky.-based health-care company Humana Inc., faces the challenge of about 11 million customers and an expanding data volume at the rate of 10 times over the past three years. “Processing takes up a lot of energy, a lot of space,” said vice-president of operations Paul Ratner. Virtualization capabilities is important for Humana, which currently counts 52 per cent of its servers virtualized, an increase from 14 per cent.

The capabilities that the Xeon 5500 server processors render certainly align with the current focus on reaping more performance in a data centre without increasing thermal overhead, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with San Jose, Calif.-based Enderle Group. “Right now, data centres are at or close to capacity in terms of how much heat they can introduce into them, and yet they still need to do more work,” said Enderle. “And with these Xeon processors, you can consolidate servers in a data centre; the new servers can do more work and yet still operate within the thermal envelope.”

Intel’s announcement today will also bear an impact on rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc., in that the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker will be required to execute equally as well on its own roadmap, said Rau. “I think it does put a lot of pressure on AMD … and it needs to implement on the roadmap that it’s started over the course of 2009. If it executes, it will be as successful as Intel.”

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