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Intel wants vintage x64 servers on rubbish heap

Time to buy Westmere, says Westmere maker

hands waving dollar bills in the air

With the economy on the mend - at least by gross measures that may not mean a hill of beans to people on the street - Intel thinks it is putting its "Westmere-EP" Xeon 5600 processors into the field at precisely the right time. Not only are people more willing to spend money than they were a year ago, but their aged servers are one year older and closer to death.

According to Boyd Davis, general manager of marketing for Intel's Data Center Group, the new six-core Xeon processors make an even better case for the removal of vintage single-core and dual-core x64 servers and the consolidation of their workloads onto bare metal or virtualized Xeon 5600 boxes than the "transformational" Nehalem-EP Xeon 5500s did a year ago.

Last March, the Xeon 5500s, thanks largely to the factor of three expansion of memory bandwidth that came from the ditching of the old Xeon frontside bus architecture for the new QuickPath Interconnect, represented the largest performance boost in the history of Intel server chips.

The quad-core Xeon 5500s outperformed their quad-core predecessors, the "Harpertown" Xeon 5400s, by anywhere from 70 to 125 per cent, depending on the workload, with memory-sensitive workloads seeing the most gains. Such performance increases, coupled with aging x64 machinery, is what compelled customers to start spending again on x64 servers in the second half of 2009.

The six-core "Istanbul" Opteron 2400 and 8400 processors did their part as well in the x64 server recovery by delivering a roughly 50 per cent performance improvement in existing quad-core "Shanghai" Opteron machines. This time around, Intel has the existing Nehalem-EP machines and is doing a drop-in upgrade that offers roughly the same performance bump and also pushes the core count up to six per socket, and in a few weeks, it will be AMD that is rolling out a new chipset and a tweaked architecture, pushing per-socket core counts to a dozen with the "Magny-Cours" Opteron 6100s.

The argument that Intel was making a year ago, according to Boyd, was the Xeon 5500s offered around nine times the performance of old single-core Xeons sold in 2005. So moving up to new Nehalem-EP boxes could pay for itself in about eight months when you take into account the reduced number of software licenses and lower power, cooling and maintenance expenses for the newer systems. (That scaling factor was based on the SPECjbb_2005 Java benchmark test, which is the most friendly to such a consolidation measure thanks to the Java virtual machine and its virtualized runtime).

Now, with the Westmere-EP chips, using the same Java consolidation methodology, Boyd says that customers can get 15 times the oomph per machine. Which means a few different things. First, they could replace the old boxes, rack for rack, with machines based on Xeon 5600s and get 15 times the performance and still cut their energy bills by around eight per cent. Or, they could compress their server racks by a factor of 15 and still have the same amount of raw computing, cut their annual power bills by 95 per cent, and get a return on investment in around five months.

By Intel's math, you can take 50 of those single-core, two-socket vintage Xeon boxes and replace them with three two-socket Xeon 5600 servers, and save $5,092 per month on software support, $1,838 per month on electric bills, and $3,125 per month on maintenance fees, assuming the box is running Red Hat Enterprise Linux alone. That's $10,055 per month. (You can use Intel's Server Refresh Estimator to run your own scenarios and see what the savings would be from other gear and using other workloads.)

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