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Intel: Nehalem EP ramp is steep

AMD price war looms large

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As part of its preview of its "Nehalem EX" processor for high-end servers yesterday, Intel cushioned the blow in delaying this chip by showing how well its baby brother, the "Nehalem EP" chip for two-socket boxes, was doing in the market.

Boyd Davis, general manager at Intel's Server Platforms Group marketing, said that customer acceptance was high for the Nehalem EP chips (sold as the Xeon 5500s and launched at the end of March). The Nehalem EPs, also known by the codename "Gainestown" for a while, are the first Intel servers sporting the much-needed QuickPath Interconnect for linking processors, memory, and I/O using lots of bandwidth, thus allowing the Nehalem cores to get about twice as much work done as their predecessor quad-core Xeon 5400 chips, which were crippled by the Xeon's frontside bus architecture.

Despite the fact that server makers had not been ready to launch all of their server products in March and are just now, in some cases, getting their iron out there to chase the budget dollars, Davis says that Intel is projecting that the Nehalem EP will comprise more than 50 per cent of two-socket chip shipments "by mid-August, if not a little bit sooner".

This is, Davis said, ahead of expectations, and considering the performance boost that the Nehalem EPs offered (particularly for virtualized server workloads), the bar was probably set pretty high even with the bad economy. Some would say precisely because of the economic meltdown.

At this point, over 73 server makers have put together some 230 different Nehalem EP systems, and more than 100 systems and application packages gave been tuned and optimized to take advantage of Nehalem EP's features and thus chase that 2X performance boost over the "Harpertown" quad-core Xeon 5400s. (All that performance doesn't come for free, as you might expect. Customers don't have to recompile their applications to move them from prior Xeons to the Nehalem EPs, but tuning is required for maximum performance because of the radically different architectures of the systems.)

Based on the results of a set of five different benchmarks for each workload type, Intel says the Nehalem EPs deliver up to 3.5 times the memory bandwidth, up to 2.5 times the database performance, up to 1.7 times the integer throughput, and up to 2.2 times the floating point performance of the Xeon 5400s. Those are top-bin comparisons of the Xeon 5500 and the Xeon 5400 chips, and you have to be careful of the "up to" clause, of course.

Davis said that there have been over 6,000 articles in the trade and general press about the Nehalem EPs since the launch and over 97,000 blog posts yammering about the chips and systems. Over 60,000 people, he added, had attended Intel online events relating to the chips.

Advanced Micro Devices might be preparing to launch its "Istanbul" six-core Opteron processor any day now, but even with potentially more performance per core than Intel can deliver, AMD has to be braced for a pretty tough fight. A six-core chip Istanbul without simultaneous multi-threading may not best a four-core Nehalem EP that does have HyperThreading.

All point-to-point interconnects being equal (that would be HyperTransport versus QPI), I smell a price war with lots of skirmishes. ®

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