Intel: We're back

Hopes are riding on the Woodcrest server chip, now in formal release, to turn back recent market share losses.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel formally unveiled its Xeon 5100 series processors on Monday, releasing to customers one of its most anticipated and important products in recent years.

At a launch event here, Intel added little to the Xeon 5100 story that hasn't already been told. The chip, formerly known as Woodcrest, is based on a new microarchitecture that the company is counting on to improve the performance of its flagging server division .

"We're back. We're back to a position we're used to having," said Tom Kilroy, the general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.

Intel's server group hasn't been able to make such a claim in years. The Opteron processor has vaulted rival Advanced Micro Devices from the hinterlands of the server market to a more than 20 percent share, with its superior performance and power consumption.

Server partners lined up to support Intel's launch. They included all its major customers, such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell. Intel plans to make the transition to Woodcrest the fastest introduction of a new product in the company's history, Kilroy said, underscoring Intel's need for a competitive product.

Intel believes it has turned the tide on performance, citing 25 benchmarks where it holds a lead over AMD. The features of Intel's new Core microarchitecture, such as a larger and more sophisticated cache memory design and a faster connection to memory, are responsible for the boost in performance over Intel's older dual-core server processors, Kilroy said.

But Intel and AMD are also focusing on the somewhat fuzzy performance-per-watt metric, as they jostle to become known as the least electricity-hungry vendor. They have engaged in a battle of PowerPoint slides claiming superior energy efficiency, but now that Xeon 5100 series systems are available for customers to test in their own environments, a clearer picture should start to emerge.

"There should be a focus on energy efficiency, but it should not come at the expense of performance," Kilroy said.

Power consumption is extremely important to the developers at Pixar working on their next movie, said Greg Brandeau, the vice president of technology at the animation studio. Pixar compared preproduction servers using the Xeon 5100 processors with machines using older Intel products. It found it could provide the same level of computing power to its developers in one-third of the space needed to house the older servers, and with half as much power consumption, Brandeau said.

Pixar has both Opteron and Xeon processors in its server rooms, Brandeau said. The company uses an internal benchmark based on its Renderman technology to evaluate processor performance, adding the best-performing chip at the moment when it needs to increase computing capacity. Right now, Pixar is planning to purchase systems based on Woodcrest and Cloverton , a quad-core processor scheduled to emerge next year, he said.

Some server customers are also excited about the built-in hardware support for virtualization software that comes along with the Woodcrest processors, Kilroy said. Virtualization technology allows IT managers to run separate virtual environments on a single processor, eliminating the need for dedicated servers to run a particular application.

So, in addition to reducing their power bills, IT managers will be able to get rid of excess systems that take up time and space, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64.

The average server's utilization rate is extremely low, somewhere around 13 percent. Servers based on Intel's older processors still consumed a great deal of power even when they were running at low utilization rates, he said. Virtualization technology will condense more applications onto a single server.

The question now for Intel is whether the new chips can help the company halt its market share losses at the hands of AMD.

"We know who we've lost, and we know why we lost it," Kilroy said in an interview after his presentation. "Eight out of 10 shipments are still Intel, despite the fact that we've been performance-challenged and performance-per-watt-challenged. Many customers are still buying, despite the fact we fell behind."

Intel is shipping several different versions of the Xeon 5100 processor, at clock speeds up to 3GHz. The most powerful chip consumes 85 watts of power, but others will use 65 watts of power, the company said in a release. A 40-watt version running at 2.33GHz is planned for the third quarter, Kilroy said.

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