Intel has introduced a more powerful family of Xeon processors with up to 10 cores, giving Windows and Linux computer makers the muscle needed to continue luring customers away from manufacturers of Unix servers running RISC processors.
The Xeon E7 family, consisting of the 8800, 4800, and 2800 series, forms the top end of the brand, with the E5 and the E3 families comprising the midrange and entry-level positions. Introduced Tuesday, the E7 is based on the 32-nanometer Westmere EX architecture, which is the generational successor of Nehalem EX.
Intel introduced a total of 18 processors with up to 10 cores for two-, four-, and eight-socket servers. The chips provide up to 40% higher system-level performance than the Nehalem EX architecture, which has as many as eight cores. The E7 processors boost by 25% the performance of applications running on virtual machines.
The higher computing power makes Intel's x86 platform, typically running Windows or Linux, an even stronger competitor against RISC-based servers running variants of the Unix operating system. The latter has traditionally been trusted with running so-called mission-critical applications, such as enterprise resource planning systems, databases, and other applications requiring major horsepower that's reliable.
Servers running x86 chips from Intel or Advance Micro Devices have already taken the low-end of the RISC market, and are moving slowly into the midrange and high-end of the market with each new chip generation that's more powerful and energy efficient than the last. Makers of Unix/RISC systems include IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle.
But despite the gains Intel is making in chip performance, full displacement of Unix systems is a process that will take many years, if it happens at all. Large companies as a whole have invested billions of dollars in software and RISC hardware that won't be replaced soon. What analysts do see is a slow migration to x86, as it comes time to replace older RISC systems.
"It continues over time," Jean Bozman, analyst for IDC, said in an interview. "It's a process of having a higher percentage of units and a higher percentage of revenue on x86 systems, but clearly there's still going to be Unix servers in the marketplace." Intel is focused on more than just raw power in trying to grab bigger chunks of the server market. The E7 platforms provide 2 TB of memory in a four-socket system. In addition, the processors have security improvements in the form of Intel's Advanced Encryption Standard New Instruction (AES-NI) and Trusted Execution Technology (TXT). The former accelerates data encryption and decryption, and the latter is a hardware extension to Intel chips that provide computer makers with a higher level of control over security.
The E7 processors also have major improvements in power management by incorporating capabilities introduced in other Xeon CPUs, such as Intelligent Power technology that reduces idle power on cores not in use.
Intel is providing 10 different 10-core versions of the E7, including the 8870, 4870, and 2870, all of which reach 2.4 GHz with a thermal design point of 130 watts. The company is also providing a low-voltage 10-core chip. The 8867L reaches 2.13 GHz with a TDP of 105 watts.
"It's hard to find a downside to this announcement," Richard Fichera, an analyst for Forrester Research, said in his blog. "Intel extends its performance franchise even further into what was legacy RISC/UNIX territory with this announcement, and Linux and Windows workloads get a platform that improves performance significantly without requiring any system redesign, ensuring a rapid flow of product into the market."
Intel says system makers are expected to announce more than 35 products based on the E7. The manufacturers include Bull, Cisco, Cray, Dawning, Dell, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, IBM, Inspur, Lenovo, NEC, Oracle, PowerLeader, Quanta, SGI, Supermicro, and Unisys.
The Xeon E7 processors range in price from $774 to $4,616 in quantities of 1,000. The Xeon processor E3-1200 entry-level family, also unveiled Tuesday, ranges in price from $189 to $612 in quantities of 1,000.
RISC/Unix servers in the fourth quarter of last year accounted for almost 26% of the server market, or $3.8 billion, which was relatively flat year over year after a string of quarterly declines, IDC says. Sales of X86 servers, which make up nearly 60% of the market, rose more than 21% to $9 billion.
Nevertheless, the fact that sales of Unix servers were flat indicated the market was stabilizing, according to IDC.