Intel's Nehalem-EX aims for high-performance computing

Intel says Nehalem-EX chips are the fastest performing server chips to date

Intel on Tuesday announced eight-core Nehalem-EX chips, which the company said provide performance jumps that could bring critical infrastructure computing to mainstream servers.

The Nehalem-EX processors deliver up to 20 times more performance than single-core Xeon processors, said Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, during a launch event held in San Francisco that was also webcast.

"It is the single biggest leap in performance in Xeon's history," Skaugen said. A single Nehalem-EX server can replace up to 20 single-core servers, which should help consolidate data centers and reduce energy costs.

Nehalem-EX processors are targeted at high-end servers that require high uptime and run critical applications like databases and real-time business intelligence, Skaugen said. It could also go into high-performance computing with up to 256 sockets, Skaugen said.

The eight-core processors will run at speeds between 1.86GHz and 2.26GHz. Each core will be capable of running two threads, so an eight-socket server could run 128 threads simultaneously. The processors will include up to 24MB of cache, which is double the cache on the Intel Xeon 5600 processors launched two weeks ago for low-end and mid-range servers.

The eight-core processors will be part of the Xeon 7500 and 6500 product line. The company also introduced new quad-core and six-core processors as part of those product lines. Prices for the processors start at $744 and range to $3,692.

The Nehalem-EX processors also include a number of security, reliability and memory enhancements compared to its earlier chips, Skaugen said. Intel has put four memory channels in the eight-core processors, which puts it on par with AMD's 12-core Opteron 6100 chip, which was announced on Monday. Nehalem-EX servers could also include separate buffered memory chips that can temporarily store data alongside the main memory for faster execution, the company has said.

In benchmarking done by InfoWorld, a 16-core system based on Intel's Nehalem-EX X7560 processors running at 2.26GHz outperformed a 24-core server based on AMD's Opteron 8435 processors running at 2.6GHz. The two-socket system running Intel's Nehalem-EX X7560 also outperformed a four-socket server running Intel's Xeon X7350 running at 2.93GHz.

Group One Trading, an options trading firm in San Francisco, is waiting to test Nehalem-EX and sees potential benefits, said Terence Judkins, managing director of systems at the company.

"We believe these will be nice upgrades for many of our infrastructure servers; market data, database, and virtualized servers," Judkins said. The new chips will allow Group One to consolidate servers and save on power, cooling and maintenance costs in the long run.

"If we can successfully run two market data processes on a single server where before we needed two servers then that is a home run," Judkins said.

The improved features of Nehalem-EX could also push the x86 architecture into the market dominated by chips such as Intel's Itanium and RISC (reduced instruction set computer)-based chips like IBM's Power and Oracle/Sun's Sparc, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist for In-Stat.

Intel is adapting some technologies for Nehalem-EX from Itanium, like RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features to reduce data corruption and ensure reliable system performance. Technologies like MCA Recovery error correction will be able to detect system errors originating in the CPU or system memory and correct them by working with the OS.

By bringing RAS features to the x86 architecture, Intel has laid the groundwork for customers to move away from RISC, McGregor said. Customers have traditionally paid a lot to acquire servers based on RISC architecture, but Nehalem-EX offers compelling features at a considerably lower price, McGregor said.

However, some companies may stick to RISC or Itanium because of performance, legacy software and familiarity, he said.

"There's always going to be this niche market that needs the [performance] though x86 is scaling there now," McGregor said.

NEC, which is offering both the Nehalem-EX and Itanium servers, will continue to offer Itanium chips for those who want custom solutions, said Mike Mitsch, general manager of the IT platform group at NEC Corporation of America. However, he said that Nehalem-EX offers a price-performance advantage that could accelerate the move to x86 in high-end systems.

"No one will dispute that," Mitsch said.

Intel's Nehalem-EX competition also includes AMD's 12-core Opteron 6100 chip, which contains highest number of cores in an x86 server processor, McGregor said. However, AMD's chips cannot match Nehalem-EX on reliability features, and could make it a better fit for orthodox servers in less-critical infrastructures where customers look for a price-performance advantage, he said.

System vendors, including Dell, NEC, Cray, Cisco and IBM will introduce Nehalem-EX servers, Skaugen said. Dell announced the PowerEdge M910, R910 and R810 servers, which will all support Nehalem-EX processors. The R810 server is priced starting at $4,999, the R910 starting at $7,799 and the M910 starting at $4,999.

NEC is taking orders for NEC Express5800/A1080a server with up to eight sockets. The server is priced starting at $53,000 for a four-socket server with 128GB of memory.

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