Intel Launches 'Dunnington' Six-Core Server Processors

Designed for virtualization environments, the latest Xeon-branded products offer frequencies up to 2.66 GHz and power levels starting at 50 watts.
Intel on Monday launched its first six-core server processors, aiming the offering at virtualized environments and data-demanding workloads, such as databases, business intelligence, ERP applications, and server consolidation.

The processors are among seven Xeon chips introduced as the 7400 series, which also include four-core processors. The latest products offer frequencies up to 2.66 GHz and power levels starting at 50 watts. The lowest voltage six-core processor is 65 watts.

The series is compatible with Intel's existing 7300 series platforms and the 7300 chipset with memory capacity up to 256 GB. The top-of-the-line X7460 six-core processor has an L3 cache of 16 MB, a 1,066-MHz front-side bus, and a maximum power consumption of 130 watts.

Code-named Dunnington, the six-core processors are the last CPUs of the Penryn generation. Intel plans to start shipping chips built with its next-generation core microarchitecture, code-named Nehalem, this year.

In shipping a six-core processor, Intel is breaking from the tradition of doubling the number of cores in the previous generation. The company's decision not to wait to ship an eight-core product, which would be a doubling of Intel's current quad-core Xeon, reflects the high demand among customers for higher-performing chips, said Shane Rau, analyst for market researcher IDC. Not having the "performance crown" can quickly lead to lost business.

"The market for server processors have been more volatile than one would have expected," Rau told InformationWeek. "Customers will move over in a space of only a quarter or two from one vendor to the next."

Intel appears to be ahead in the performance race, but rival Advanced Micro Devices isn't standing still. It has a six-core Opteron server processor in the works and plans to skip eight cores and go directly to a 12-core processor in 2010.

As of the second quarter of this year, Intel had 86.2% of the market for x86 server processors, and AMD 13.8%, according to IDC. During the same quarter a year ago, Intel had 86.8% and AMD 13.2%.

More than 50 computer manufacturers plan to ship products with Intel's latest processors. Four-socket rack servers are expected from Dell, Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens, Hitachi, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Sun Microsystems, Supermicro, and Unisys. Four-socket blade servers will be available from Egenera, HP, Sun, and NEC; and servers that scale up to 16 sockets are planned by IBM, NEC, and Unisys.

Among software vendors, Citrix and VMware are expected to support Intel's six-core processors with their virtualization technology. Virtualization, primarily used for server consolidation in data centers, is a key focus for Intel's latest products.

During a launch event for the media in San Francisco on Monday, Intel held a panel discussion with executives from Yahoo, Oracle, VeriSign, and MySpace. While server consolidation remained the biggest use for virtualization, the executives said they plan to expand the use of the technology in other areas.

Richard Buckingham, director of system engineering for MySpace, said the social network has 700 virtual machines running off of 32 hosts in its testing and development systems.

MySpace does not use virtualization in its production environments because of the massive scaling requirements of the online social network. "We can't really build anything where there's a single [maximum] scale point," Buckingham said.

In the future, MySpace is looking to incorporate virtualization in the configuration management systems it'll be building for its production servers, which number 12,000, Buckingham said. "We can do some clever things in terms of patching Windows servers and things like that."

In terms of server consolidation, the panelists expected the six-core processors and their greater memory capacity to enable them to consolidate more applications in a single server. "The faster the servers are the fewer we have to buy, and that's a good thing," said Campbell Webb, a VP in IT at Oracle.

Pricing for the Xeon 7000 sequence processors ranges from $856 to $2,729 in quantities of 1,000.

This story was edited on Sept. 15 to include analyst comments.