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Intel Xeon 5600 invade big name servers

Apples, applesauce, and socket upgrades

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Server makers are embracing Intel's "Westmere-EPs" Xeons.

Intel's cadence for chips have a tick-tock rhythm, where the cores and processors are updated on the "tick" and the process shrink leading to more cores, larger cache, and sometimes faster clocks comes on the "tock." Servers based on Intel's Xeon chips follow the same meter, of course, but it is the sockets and chipsets that are ticking and tocking.

When the six-core "Westmere-EP" Xeon 5600s that were launched, a lot of the server makers kept essentially the same lineup, allowing for customers to buy last year's x64 boxes. But this time around, they're slapping Xeon 5600s into their boxes instead of last year's Xeon 5500s, the "Nehalem-EPs" that reinvigorated the server market in the wake of the economic meltdown as 2009 was coming to a close.

As Intel's sales pitch for the Xeon 5600s explained, mainstream commercial applications - ERP, database, Java applications, etc. - saw anywhere from a 27 to 42 per cent performance bump. And with roughly the same chip prices (Intel is charging a slight premium, clock for clock, with the Xeon 5600s, sometimes it is charging less), this is an easy upgrade to sell for server makers.

Even if Intel was using an apples-to-applesauce comparison, with 2.93 GHz, 95 watt, quad-core Xeon 5500s being stack up against 3.33 GHz, 130 watt, six-core Xeon 5600s instead of systems using processors running at the same speed or watts. The 130 watt parts are utterly useless in a lot of data centers and would normally have been restricted to workstations where power and cooling are not a big issue.

These 130 watt parts certainly are not expected to be popular with customers as far as the server makers that El Reg spoke to in the wake of the Xeon 5600 announcements can tell. The reason they exist in the server lineup with the Westmere-EPs and were not with the Nehalem-EPs is that Intel needs to have a top-end server part to compare to the impending top-end twelve-core Opteron 6100 from rival Advanced Micro Devices.

The other Xeon 5600 parts are being embraced enthusiastically by the top tier server makers, although with the two-socket boxes having so much more oomph, you might think they'd be at least a little more ambivalent because virtualization atop these machines will cause even that much more footprint compression.

Hewlett-Packard, the volume leader in the x64 server racket, has rolled the Xeon 5600s into 18 of its existing ProLiant G6 machines, and the chips will be available on March 29. Specifically, the ProLiant BL280c, BL2x220c, BL460c, and BL490c blade servers, the ProLiant DL120, DL160, DL170h, DL180, DL320, and DL380 rack-mounted servers, and the ProLiant ML110, ML330, ML350, and ML370 tower servers can all be equipped with the new chip.

Krista Satterthwaite, product marketing manager at HP's Industry Standard Servers unit, says that customers with ProLiant G4 systems will be taking a pretty hard look at the G6 machines with Westmere-EPs. With last year's Nehalem-EP launch, HP reckoned that it could compress around 13 ProLiant G4 servers into a single ProLiant G6 box. With the Westmere-EPs, HP is now figuring it is more like 20 to 1 compression. That is a 27 times improvement in performance per watt, and instead of a three month return on investment (taking into account software licenses, power and cooling, floor space, and other factors) as on the Xeon 5500s, the Xeon 5600s in the ProLiant G6s can get the money back in two months.

The ProLiant G6s sporting their Xeon 5500s had the fastest transition of any x86 or x64 server product launch in HP's history, according to Satterthwaite, and the company expects the momentum to continue to build with the Xeon 5600s. The support for new 40 watt and 60 watt parts and low-voltage DDR3 memory are also going to push ProLiant G6s into places where they might not have been able to go before because of power and cooling issues.

HP is not just interested in selling new ProLiant boxes based on the Xeon 5600s. Satterthwaite says that among some customers where the ROI on such a big performance improvement as the jump from Xeon 5500s to Xeon 5600s embodies is on the order of a half hour - think risk analysis and trading systems at financial services companies, where microseconds are millions of dollars - HP is expecting to sell quite a number of processor upgrade kits. Some big HPC supercomputing labs will also be interested in upgrading.

Sally Stevens, vice president of PowerEdge server marketing at Dell concurs, saying that there are always some "heat seekers" in the customer base who want more performance, and Dell therefore is expecting to sell a fair number of processor upgrades even though customers may have only bought their PowerEdge 11G machines last year.

"In the old days, when CPU performance was maybe on the order of 6 to 10 per cent higher, this didn't make a lot of sense," says Stevens. "But at around a 50 per cent jump, upgrading becomes a lot more attractive."

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