Intel gives the go ahead to buy its server chips again
'This platform has legs'
For the last few months, Intel has been on something you might call "Paul Otellini's Ride." It's kind of a Silicon Valley take on Paul Revere's famous ride where instead of warning about the British, Intel warned about the future. "The future is coming! The future is coming! The future is coming."
Today, the future finally arrived with Intel's delivery of a new dual-core server processor meant for dual-socket systems. This new Xeon chip fixes some very pressing problems for the world's largest chipmaker. Customers can now feel safe buying server chips from Intel again.
"We are back in a position we are used to being in and that is undeniable leadership," said Intel VP Tom Kilroy, during a press conference.
As you can tell, Intel isn't underselling its own accomplishments. And why shouldn't it?
The Xeon Processor 5100 series processor - aka Woodcrest - is a minor miracle. Intel managed to catch up to AMD's more elegant Opteron processor design by reworking the hell out of past designs to create an energy efficient chip. Then, where old-fashioned engineering didn't do the trick, Intel just slapped on an ever-swelling cache to its processor to make up for performance problems.
The end result is a chip that looks to trounce Opteron on benchmarks in the near-term and to at least split benchmarks with Opteron once AMD gets a new version of its server chip out the door. So, Intel has delivered the future that it promised for so many months, as customers abandoned it for AMD's better performing gear.
No Tier 1 server vendor could he happier to see Intel ship the new Xeon than IBM, which has spent hundreds of millions on engineering a chipset for Intel's products.
IBM today unveiled its "Woodcrest" lineup, starting with the HS21 blade server. The "ultra-slim" system is really just the same as the HS20 but with Woodcrest inside. It will start at $2,159 when it goes on sale in August.
Also shipping August will be the System x3650 starting at $2,119, the x3550 starting at $1,869, the x3500 starting at $1,809, the x3400 starting at $1,019 and the z Pro Z30 workstation starting at $2,169. Overall, IBM expects some systems to show up to 90 per cent better application performance and up to 163 per cent better performance per watt than the boxes running on Intel's janky older chips.
HP has one-upped IBM by delivering its Woodcrest gear today. Starting prices for the new HP kit run as follows: ProLiant DL140 - $1449; ProLiant DL360 - $2249; ProLiant DL380 - $2449; ProLiant ML150 - $899; ProLiant ML350 - $1699; ProLiant ML370 - $2399 and ProLiant BL20p - $2229.
HP's new C-class blades will ship with Woodcrest in mid to late July.
Ever upfront, Dell announced that its new Woodcrest gear is "now available." In reality, however, you can only order the hardware now. It ships on July 17.
The PowerEdge 1950, 2900, 2950 and 1955 blade servers start at $1,898, $1,848, $1,948 and $1,848 respectively. The Precision 690 and 490 workstations start at $1,779 and $1.529.
Intel's Kilroy vowed that "this will be the fastest DP (dual-processor) ramp in our history," and HP seems set to lead the charge for Intel.
While it plans to hit the streets hard in the near-term, Intel is also promising staying power to customers. It will deliver socket-compatible gear around the "Bensley" server platform, which Woodcrest slots into, through 2009.
Intel, of course, plans to release fancier chips outside of Bensley before 2009. The longevity promise is meant to answer charges made by AMD that Intel still has a number of major architecture revisions - integrated memory controller and Hypertransport copy - to go through and does not have a "stable" design.
"This platform has legs," Kilroy promised.
In third quarter, Intel plans to release a low power - 40W - version of Woodcrest and will then release four-core chips in the first quarter of next year.
In addition, Intel plans to release a new MP processor in the third quarter.
Kilroy sidestepped direct questions about how well the "Tulsa" MP chip will fair against Opteron. He downplayed the MP space, saying it only makes up 10 per cent of the market. Now, that's confidence.
Intel has without question come out swinging against AMD and is "back" as its executives like to say.
The funny bit, however, about today's launch is how close Intel and AMD's pitches are to each other.
AMD reckons that it can keep Opteron momentum going even if it doesn't win a single new customer in the coming months. It has burrowed into many Fortune 500 data centers, and these folks will keep buying more and more servers. Large companies don't change suppliers just because of a momentary difference in performance.
Similarly, Intel today noted its long-standing relationships with large companies.
"Enterprise don't just flip a switch," Kilroy said. "There are all these relationships that have been in place for years."
Even though Intel has "struggled with competitive offerings. We have stayed engaged with our customers."
Over the next couple of months, we'll find out exactly how good Woodcrest is from a pure performance standpoint. Look to see which processors are in the major high performance computing wins. The HPC crowd will happily pay a premium for Intel's cache-heavy chips if they trounce Opteron.
In the longer-term, we'll have to watch how AMD's market share shakes out. If AMD ends up reaching 30 per cent share as it predicts, then Intel did just enough to thwart a total disaster. If AMD can't reach 30 per cent share, then Intel has to consider Woodcrest a major victory.
If nothing else, it's nice to see Intel saying that customers can buy its chips with pride again. Intel has talked about Woodcrest for months and months and months, employing the old "we're working on something really great, please don't make a major server purchase yet" strategy. It always makes us uncomfortable to see the market leader be put in the awkward position of implicitly telling customers not to buy its current gear. Thanks goodness that's over. ®