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Intel Xeon E5: Server Chips With Virtualization Secrets

Chips used to be all about clock speeds and shrinking circuit size. But Intel's newest chips for data center servers are all about networking, I/O, and data movement, in the age of virtualization.

Intel on Tuesday launched the E5-2600, a server chip that is designed to improve networking, I/O, and data movement.

The improvements are not focused on clock speed and smaller circuit size, the traditional path Intel has taken to boost chip performance. And in contrast to earlier Xeon chips, this one is specifically designed for data center servers, as opposed to being a personal computer chip adapted into servers.

The E5-2600 has 80% better performance overall than its two-year-old, Xeon 5600 predecessor, is 50% more efficient per watt of electricity, and reduces data latencies on the chip by 30%, Intel says.

"The chip needed an I/O revamp," said Derek Chan, head of digital operations at DreamWorks Animation SKG, maker of animated films. Chan welcomed the addition of an I/O controller to the processor instead of having its function contained in a separate chip on the motherboard, as with earlier Xeons. DreamWorks will use 60 million processor hours on E5-2600s to complete the assembly of the animated feature, "Madagascar 3".

The E5-2600 will come with up to eight cores and is targeted at two- and four-socket servers, the mainstays of the data center market. The launch of the first update to the Xeon family in two years was made Tuesday in San Francisco.

[ Want to see what Intel is doing in the related world of mobile computing? See Intel Shows Mobile Roadmap. ]

Intel partners IBM, HP, Dell, Cisco, Oracle, Fujitsu, and others will quickly bring E5-2600 servers to market, predicted Diane Bryant, VP and general manager of Intel's Data Center and Connected Systems Group, at the launch event.

"You will be able to deploy far more virtual machines on this platform," due to its I/O and networking capabilities being in better balance with the CPU, said Bryant.

Specifically, the chip includes:

-- Integrated I/O or an I/O controller etched into the CPU die, capable of supporting PCI Express 3.0. The combination means an E5-2600 Xeon can handle 8 gigatransfers, or data transfer operations, per second compared to 5 gigatransfers per second in the previous, PCI Express 2.0 generation.

-- Intel DDIO or Data Direct I/O allows an Intel or other Ethernet controller to transfer data direct from the network to the processor cache, bypassing the need to first load it into main memory. The move lowers data latency, trips to memory, and power use.

-- Turbo Boost Technology, which allows power going to an idle core to be redirected to an active, allowing its clock speed to spike upward as high as 900 MHz in order to handle a larger workload.

-- The Node Manager's power management is able to throttle back power consumption by components on the chip when the logic unit is slowing down; it keeps power consumption throughout the chip more consistent with the likely needs of the components.

-- Data Center Manager is able to aggregate Node Manager data to gain a view of CPU utilization across a rack or data center cluster and match it to power consumption, both dynamically matching it to existing workloads and limiting overall consumption.

"We had a situation inside Intel where operations managers drove up CPU utilization so high that they increased power consumption by 50%," recalled Bryant. The staff had to back off its high utilization rate because it was too close to the total available power supply, she said. Intel has virtualized about 60% of its data center operations, and higher numbers of VMs per server results in higher CPU utilization rates.

Intel has built Advance Vector Extensions into the E5 chip so that it can double the number of floating point operations it can perform. The move tends to speed up the processing of scientific, financial, technical, and content creation applications.

Bryant said the 80% performance gains over the previous generation is a result of the balanced I/O, data movement, and processing power of the chip, not just a wind up of clock speed.

Encryption has been built into the chip to guarantee greater security in data handling and movement. The AES-NI can execute 256-bit encryption coding at a rate of 39.7 Gbps, up from 5.3 Gbps and 10.9 Gbps speeds of previous dual-socket servers, Bryant added.

The latest Xeon chip's release comes at a time when search, social gaming, social networking, and ecommerce companies are building data centers at a frenetic pace. Intel CEO Paul Otellini has estimated from Intel's own statistics and other sources that $450 billion a year is being spent on data center construction, "one of the more significant capital expenditures" of our time, he said at Dell World last November. The E5-2600 is meant to power the servers going into those new data centers.

It's time to get going on data center automation. The cloud requires automation, and it'll free resources for other priorities. Download InformationWeek's Data Center Automation special supplement now. (Free registration required.)

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