Intel's new Xeon 5600 chips outperform predecessors

Intel's new Xeon 5600 chips are up to 60 percent faster than the Xeon 5500 processors

Intel introduced a line of Xeon server chips that operate up to 60 percent faster than previous server processors, the company said on Tuesday.

The 15 new processors in the Xeon 5600 line include low-power chips and come in quad-core and six-core variants, the company said. The processors are faster than the older Xeon 5500 series chips, which were launched about a year ago.

The clock speeds of the new chips range from 1.86GHz for the quad-core Xeon L5609 processor, which consumes only 40 watts of power, to 3.46GHz for the fastest Xeon X5677 six-core chip, which draws up to 130 watts. All the processor chips include 12MB of cache.

A lot of businesses still run single-core chips in servers, and adoption of the new chips is an "economic no-brainer," said Boyd Davis, general manager of the data center marketing group at Intel. One Xeon 5600 server will be able to replace up to 15 single-core servers, Davis said. A low-voltage, six-core Xeon 2.26GHz L5640 chip drawing 60 watts will deliver comparable performance to the older quad-core 2.93GHz Xeon 5570 chip using 95 watts, Intel said.

The performance and power benefits offered by the new processors could lead to increased server shipments, which have either fallen or grown slowly since the start of 2009, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. The server upgrade cycle has been glacial as corporate spending has been restricted because of the economy, but there are signs of an uptick in enterprise spending, McCarron said.

"They are getting more performance for the footprint" with the Xeon 5600 processors, McCarron said. "The data center doesn't have to expand in size to expand in performance."

While additional cores in chips may be desirable, that may not necessarily improve system performance, McCarron said. Some users may consider virtualization to break up workloads for faster execution, while some tasks may need a larger processor cache or more memory rather than extra cores.

The new chips are part of the Westmere architecture and are being made using the 32-nanometer process, which helps improve chip performance while reducing power leaks. The older Xeon 5500 processors, based on the Nehalem architecture, were made using the older 45-nm manufacturing process.

The processors also include a number of new features that will help improve system speed and security, Intel's Davis said. For example, the chips will be capable of shutting down idle cores to save power.

The security features include a new instruction set for faster data encryption and decryption called Advanced Encryption Standard - New Instructions (AES-NI). The AES algorithm is commonly used in software to encrypt and decrypt hard drives. Another new hardware security technology is the Intel TXT (Trusted Execution Transaction) technology, which could help secure data as it moves in virtualized environments, Boyd said.

Another upside to the new chips is the capability to run two threads per core, said Mike Feibus, an analyst with Techknowledge. Six-core processors will be able to run 12 threads simultaneously for faster processing.

The new processors could also set new boundaries between high-end desktops and entry-level servers, Feibus said. That is part of a systemwide architecture change that Intel is trying to bring to servers with the new chips, Feibus said.

The chips are priced between US$387 and $1,663, depending on the speed and power used by the processors. A number of vendors, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu, are announcing new servers with Xeon 5600 processors on Tuesday. Some servers will ship later this month.

Intel already offers a six-core Xeon processor code-named Dunnington that was announced in 2008. The company is also expected to announce an eight-core Nehalem-EX server processor later this month as it tries to improve the performance of chips by adding more cores.

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