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Intel set for server chip blitz

From Tukwila to Nehalem-EX

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High-end server chip rivals Intel and IBM have picked the same day - next Monday, February 8 - to launch their respective quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium and eight-core Power7 processors.

As El Reg previously reported, IBM is getting ready to launch the initial Power7-based servers in New York next Monday. The Power7 chips will have up to eight cores and Big Blue is promising to offer from two to three times the performance of systems its dual-core Power6 and Power6+ chips with the Power7.

IBM is expected to roll out some of the updated Power Systems line on Monday, with a rolling thunder gradual release through 2010. The word on the street was that the initial Power7 machines were expected in May, but IBM seems to have moved them up to better compete for news and dollars with impending chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

According to sources at Intel, the chip maker was unaware that IBM was planning its Power7 launch for February 8 when it scheduled the Tukwila launch in San Francisco for the same day. At the event, Kirk Skaugen, vice president of Intel's Architecture Group, will be joined by Martin Fink, general manager for Business Critical Servers within Hewlett-Packard's Enterprise Storage, Servers, and Networking Group. HP, of course, accounts for the vast majority of sales and shipments of Itanium-based systems and is technically a co-development partner for the Itanium design.

Here's the statement put out by Intel:

"Tukwila," the code name for the newest Itanium processor, has begun revenue shipments. The most advanced Itanium processor yet, "Tukwila" more than doubles the performance of its predecessor and adds a range of new scalability, reliability, and virtualization features. Eighty percent of the Global 100 companies already use Itanium-based servers. The launch of this Itanium mission-critical processor is part of a major push Intel is making into the server processor arena, with several announcements slated for the first half of the year.

As 2010 was winding up, Intel sources told El Reg that the Tukwila Itaniums would have a formal launch in the first quarter of 2009. The much-delayed Tukwilas were expected by the end of 2008, but in February 2009 Intel copped to the fact that they had been delayed to mid-2009. And in May last year, these chips - presumably to be called the Itanium 9500s - were pushed out again to the first quarter of 2010. This was done when, during final chip testing, Intel identified a means to optimize the performance on high-end systems by tweaking the chip in some manner that was never really explained.

Not to drag it all up again, but the original Tukwilas were due in late 2006 or early 2007 - and then the memory controllers and other features were changed. The Tukwila processor socket was also made compatible with future "Kittson" and "Poulson" Itaniums rather than with the "Montecito" Itanium 9000s and "Montvale" Itanium 9100s, pushing the chips out to 2008.

The Tukwila chip will weigh in at nearly 2 billion transistors and sports 30 MB of on-chip L3 cache memory. Clock speeds for the chip are expected to range from 1.2 GHz to 2 GHz, with top-end parts burning at 170 watts. Generally speaking, Intel is promising about twice the performance of current dual-core Itanium 9100s, which themselves are a bit of a disappointment in terms of clock speeds with their top-end 1.66 GHz clock speeds compared to the 2 GHz and higher clocks that Intel was whispering about before the Montecito and kicker Montvale chips came to market.

By the way, the official word from Intel as 2009 wound down was that the eight-core "Becton" Nehalem-EX chips - which are aimed at midrange and high-end servers like the Tukwilas and which use the same "Boxboro" chipset (but different processor sockets) - went into production at the end of last year. This was as planned, according to Intel. The company said that parts were shipped to OEMs and that it was "seeding end users." The timing of the Nehalem-EX chip launch remains a bit vague, and it's scheduled for some time during the first half of this year.

As El Reg told you last week, Intel will also next week give out some of the details about the power management features of its "Westmere-EP" processors for two-socket servers and workstations at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

The Westmere-EP chips, which are tweaked versions of the current "Nehalem-EP" Xeon 5500s that have saved Intel's financial cookies and which will no doubt be called the Xeon 5600s, are expected to be launched at the end of March. Intel has not confirmed this date, but motherboard maker Super Micro has. The Westmeres are expected to have six cores, rather than the four in the Nehalems.

Intel Labs will also present a paper at ISSCC on a research chip that crams 48 32-bit x86 cores in a 2D mesh on a single chip. ®

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