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Intel pushes Nehalem EXs into 2010

Keeping Tukwila company

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Davis would not talk about clock speeds, but said that the Nehalem EX processors would show more performance gains on database, integer, and floating point performance than the Nehalem EP chips showed over their Xeon 5400 processors. (The Nehalem EPs, sold as the Xeon 5500s, had 2.5 times the database performance, 1.7 times the integer throughput, and 2.2 timers the floating point throughput than the Xeon 5400s they replaced).

Given that you are comparing an eight-core chip to a six-core chip with the Nehalem EXs and to quad-core chips with the Nehalem EPs, you would expect the performance boost to be larger on threaded workloads like the tests Intel is using to make these comparisons.

Intel is thinking that the ability to make gluelessly connected eight-socket systems will open up a little bit more of the high-end server market to the Xeon platform. While IBM and Unisys/NEC have both created Xeon 7400 machines that span up to 16 processor sockets, four-socket boxes are the norm when it comes to Xeon 7400 servers, and quite frankly, these machines have very little benefit over two-socket Nehalem EP machines at this point. QPI will breathe a little life in the high-end of the x64 server market, which really doesn't want to buy Itanium machines for scalability.

A four-socket Nehalem EX box will have 32 processor cores and 64 threads, and using 8 GB DDR3 DIMMs, it could support as much as 512 GB of main memory. Now, without any special chipset, a machine can expand to double that - 64 cores, 128 threads, and 1 TB of memory - without anything other than Intel's chips and the Boxboro-EX chipset. That's as big as big iron gets these days, and Intel says this is why it has eight OEMs getting ready to sell these eight-socket boxes, and they have 15 different designs.

IBM demonstrated its System x version of such a configuration at the Intel preview event, and it's committed to making even larger systems based on the Nehalem EX chips with its forthcoming EX5 chipset. Alex Yost, vice president in charge of IBM's System x and BladeCenter business, said during the demonstration that the 64-core configuration - and presumably larger machines with more than eight sockets or otherwise you would not need the EX5 chipset - were in their testing cycles now and that IBM was preparing to deliver "a very exciting product in just a year's time."

May 2010 sure does sound like a long time away to wait for high-end Nehalem EX systems. But that's the way it goes in the high-end server racket, as you all know.

There have been some rumors about the Nehalem EX chips slipping into the first quarter of next year, and this is obviously what the talk is referring to. Intel's roadmaps are vague enough that you can't pin down dates with them any more, but the chatter at the end of last year was that Nehalem EX chips would come out in the fall for system deliveries late in the year.

Intel never promised anything that specific publicly, which is why Davis could claim today that the Nehalem EX was "on track" for production in the second half of 2009. Given that AMD is getting ready to put its six-shooter Istanbul chips into the field any day now, there is a little heat on Intel. But the real heat starts in early 2010, when AMD will get its kicker "Magny-Cours" six-shooters into the field with its own chipsets, chipsets that better scale well beyond four sockets if the company has any sense at all.

One of the other features that Davis divulged as part of the Nehalem EX preview was something called machine check architecture (MCA) recovery, which predicts, detects, and corrects processor, memory, and I/O errors inside the Nehalem EX chip. The Itanium family of chips sport a similar MCA feature, and the Itanium bashers will see this as well as the performance delivered in the Nehalem EX chips as yet another reason why Intel should kill off the Itanium chips. (The quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium chips were pushed out to the first quarter of 2010 last week after being delayed a number of times).

While Davis conceded that Intel had to "keep pushing Xeon as hard as we can" and said that the company was indeed poaching features from Itanium and injecting them into Xeon chips, the fact is the company nonetheless expects for Itanium to be a viable product "for many years to come."

That may be necessarily true for HP-UX, OpenVMS, and NonStop workloads, which are only available on Hewlett-Packard's Itanium-based Integrity machines, but that is certainly not true for Linux, Windows, or Solaris, which are perfectly happy to run on Xeons. Last December, Fujitsu tested a PrimeQuest Itanium box with 32 of Intel's dual-core "Montvale" Itanium 9150M processors spinning at 1.66 GHz, and it delivered 2.38 million transactions per minute (TPM) of throughput on the TPC-C online transaction processing test.

IBM's eight-socket, 48-core Dunnington box, a System x3950 M2, was able to hit 1.2 million TPM. Now, assume that an eight-socket Nehalem EX box can do 2.5 times that, as Intel says it a low water mark for the performance increase expected, then we are talking about being able to hit 3 million TPM with an eight-socket Nehalem EX with 64 cores. To be sure, the Tukwilas will double it all up again, but there is a much smaller base of shops that need to do that. And many more shops will probably go with Nehalem EX servers wherever they can. ®

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