Intel's Nehalem Server Chips Seen Aiding Virtualization

The improvements in Xeon processors are the kind of technology organizations will need as they deploy more virtualization in their data centers and move toward cloud computing, Intel said.
Intel on Monday introduced 17 Nehalem EP-based quad-core processors, officially launching its next-generation microarchitecture that one analyst said fixes the most obvious technical weaknesses in Intel's previous server platform.

Patrick Gelsinger, senior VP and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group, told a news conference at the company's Santa Clara, Calif., headquarters that the new processors represented the biggest platform advancement for Intel in more than 10 years.

"This is as significant and as transformational as the Pentium Pro was in its day," Gelsinger said.

Intel believes Nehalem EP, officially called the Xeon 3500 and 5500 series, provides the kind of technology organizations will need as they deploy more virtualization into their data centers and move toward cloud computing, which typically refers to the running of applications in an Internet server or downloading the software from the Internet each time it is used. Google Apps is an example of business applications delivered via cloud computing.

Virtualization and cloud computing are seen by the industry as big drivers for future server demand. Cloud computing is still in its infancy, and the former is starting to take off. Analyst firm Gartner predicts virtualization, or the use of virtual machines to run multiple business applications on different operating systems in the same computer server, will be the No. 1 technology initiative this year.

With this in mind, Intel has dramatically boosted the performance of its microarchitecture by introducing an integrated memory controller on the same piece of silicon as the processor, thereby eliminating the front-side bus that analysts said was a bottleneck in Intel's previous server platform. Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices has used an IMC in its Opteron processors since 2003.

In getting rid of the FSB, Intel has eliminated its "traditional area of weakness," Nathan Brookwood, analyst for Insight 64, said. "This is the last of the low-hanging fruit."

Going forward, Intel will have to work harder at refining the technology it has to squeeze out more power and energy efficiency. "There's no reason to shut down the patent office," Brookwood said.

While Nehalem EP gives Intel a performance lead over AMD, the gain is only expected to last for six months or so. AMD is sure to catch up with its future products. "We're in a leapfrog kind of mode," Brookwood said. Along with the IMC, Intel has incorporated its hyperthreading technology, which enables a processor to perform multiple tasks simultaneously, and has also included what the company calls "turbo mode," which is firmware that tailors multicore processors to the workload. The technology can ramp up individual cores when needed while shutting down others to reduce power consumption.

Beyond the processor, Intel introduced the Nehalem EP platform, which includes the chipset that contains the new 82599 10 Gigabit Ethernet Controller. The new technology is geared specifically at virtualization environments by greatly improving network input/output performance, according to Intel.

The processors introduced Monday include 14 Xeon 5500 series chips, which are for two-socket servers; and three Xeon 3500 series CPUs for single-socket servers and workstations. Prices in quantities of 1,000 range from $188 to $1,600 each for the 5500 series, and $284 to $999 for the 3500 series.

For higher-end servers, Intel plans to introduce a six-core Nehalem processor and an eight-core design, called Nehalem EX, by the end of the year.

Intel claims a Xeon 5500-based server provides nine times the performance of a single-socket server running the previous-generation Xeon processor. The power boost means as many as 21 software servers can be consolidated from older systems into a single Nehalem EP-based server, reducing power consumption and space in a data center. In such a scenario, Intel claims Xeon 5500 computers can pay for themselves in eight months.

To make the Nehalem EP platform more enticing for potential customers, Intel plans to have its upcoming 32-nanometer processors based on the microarchitecture compatible with the same motherboard sockets. Code-named Westmere, the 32-nm chips are set to ship next year. The Nehalem EP processors released Monday are based on Intel's 45-nm manufacturing process. The Westmere chips are expected to bring higher performance and better energy efficiency.

About 70 computer manufacturers, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, are releasing more than 230 products powered by the new Xeon processors, according to Intel. During the Nehalem EP launch, Intel brought out five customers either testing or about to deploy Nehalem EP servers. The customers included animation studio DreamWorks, health care insurance provider Humana, online auctioneer eBay, energy company BP, and outsourcer Savvis.

InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis of the challenges around virtualization management. Download the report here (registration required).

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