Dell workstations tap Intel's Nehalem architecture

Multi-threading, power efficiency improvements on tap from Intel.

New workstation products from vendors such as Dell, Lenovo and Apple are helping shed light on the capabilities of Intel's highly anticipated Nehalem processors.

Dell on Wednesday is releasing three new high-powered workstations with up to eight cores that take advantage of Intel innovations related to multi-threading and power usage.

The performance numbers for Intel's forthcoming Xeon 5500 Nehalem processors "represent a much bigger jump between the generations than we usually see," says Rick Perez, a Dell workstation product manager.

Previously, both Lenovo and Apple announced workstations based on the Intel Nehalem chips. HP is on track for a similar announcement next week, when Intel formally unveils the new line of processors.

Intel is moving from DDR2 to DDR3 memory, while also integrating the processor with the memory controller, resulting in lower latency, says Don Maynard, a product marketing manager at Dell.

Dell is seeing 5% to 20% performance improvement for single-threaded applications, and improvements of up to 90% for some types of multi-threaded applications, Maynard says.

Nehalem takes advantage of Intel's previously announced hyper-threading technology, which allows one processor to be treated as two, doubling the number of tasks a computer can run simultaneously.

The new processors also take advantage of Intel's "turbo mode" technology, Maynard notes. Turbo mode dynamically increases the clock speed of processors when other processors in the system aren't in use, he explains. If a single-threaded application is running on one core, the speed of that core could be increased by a factor of three if other cores in the system are inactive.

IDC analyst Lloyd Cohen adds that the new Intel processors power up and power down based upon the workload's demand, making more efficient use of energy\power cooling. "If you're not running at full throttle, it will power down and you won't use as much electricity," he says. The processors constantly monitor temperature and power consumption, and can bump up processing speed when either metric falls below normal thresholds, according to Maynard.

Dell's new workstations are the low-end Precision T3500, which starts at $999; the mid-range T5500, starting at $1,620; and the high-end T7500, starting at $1,800. The T3500 is a single-socket machine with up to four cores, while the T5500 and T7500 are dual-socket with up to eight cores.

Maximum memory capacity is 24GB, 72GB, and 192GB in the three systems, respectively.

The workstations are targeted at engineers, software designers, and digital content creators. The high-powered machines are needed for CPU-intensive applications such as rendering film, or creating virtual prototypes of new products to see how they will perform in the real world. Targeted industries include biosciences, financial services, construction, and oil and gas.

Despite the better all-around performance, workstation vendors might struggle to sell their new Nehalem-based products. "There's going to be a significant performance improvement with all the new machines out there," IDC's Cohen says. "My feeling, however, is all these new products couldn't have come out at a worse time, because users are delaying their purchases."

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