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64-bit Intel server onslaught begins

The Nocona systems' 64-bit extensions make it easier to support more than 4GB of memory on "x86" chips.

Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM and others announced on Monday the first servers to use Intel Xeon processors augmented with 64-bit extensions, a technology with major long-term implications.

The 3.6GHz chip, code-named Nocona, is used in increasingly powerful dual-processor machines that account for the bulk of Intel's presence in the market for servers. The systems are part of a new 64-bit era begun by Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices, an era that makes it easier to support more than 4GB of memory on the companies' "x86" chips.

Though Intel launched the 64-bit Itanium family in 2001, it wasn't practical to run the vast number of applications written for x86 chips such as Pentium and Xeon. Intel stands by its long-term Itanium plans, arguing that Itanium servers will have the same price but twice the performance as Xeon machines by 2007, but market analyst company IDC lowered its Itanium forecasts based on the arrival of 64-bit x86 chips.

The new chips range in speed from 3.6GHz to 2.8GHz and can be coupled with two different chipsets: the 7520, formerly code-named Lindenhurst, for more performance-minded servers; and the 7320, for assembling less-expensive models. Intel also released a chip called the IOP 332 for pulling data out of storage networks. The processor is based on a design from ARM, as are many other Intel networking chips.

As expected, the Nocona systems have arrived at same time as the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo in San Francisco--appropriate timing given that Linux is the only operating system so far that can take advantage of the processor's 64-bit extensions. Microsoft in July delayed its 64-bit version of Windows for x86 chips such as Intel's Xeon and AMD's Opteron.

Transitions from 32-bit to 64-bit chips, however, take years to accomplish, as chips, operating systems and eventually software are adapted to the change. The transition doesn't have to be fast, though; Xeon and Opteron can run 64-bit and 32-bit programs simultaneously.

"This gives (customers) the flexibility to deploy systems now and migrate when their 64-bit applications are ready," said Bruce Kornfeld, director of Dell's worldwide enterprise marketing.

The Nocona servers also come with other technologies--notably, faster DDR2 (double data rate 2) memory and the PCI Express interface for input-output devices such as network and storage cards. To use these technologies, the systems employ a faster 800MHz front-side bus to connect the Xeon to the rest of the system.

Additionally, the Xeon processors feature a technology called Demand Based Switching, which saves energy by slowing the chip down between tasks. It came from the company's notebook division, said Abhi Talwalkar, general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platform Group.

However, because of a glitch in the Lindenhurst chipset, Intel recommends against using PCI Express plug-in cards. The problem is expected to be fixed in the fourth quarter, but in the meantime, the existing older PCI-X interface can be used.

Talwalkar said the glitch could cause a system to suspend operations, if it is hit with a large number of input-output requests. The problem apparently is rare; it came up during stress testing in situations that would not likely come up in a server room. Still, Intel will rework the chips and issue a new version.

"This year, Intel has had its share of execution challenges," Talwalkar said. "It (the glitch) results in a system hang because an I/O system is asking for system resources."

Among the new Xeon servers announced on Monday are the following:

•  Dell has released four models: the stand-alone 1800 and 2800 and the rack-mountable PowerEdge 1850 and 2850. The 1850 is 1.75 inches thick (1 rack unit, or 1U), while the 2850, with more storage space, is 3.5 inches (2U). A low-end 1850s and 2850s with a 2.8GHz processor and 512MB of memory but no operating system cost $1,799 and $1,899, respectively.

•  IBM has two rack-mounted versions, also 1U and 2U thick, as well as a thin blade server, two stand-alone servers and a workstation. The 1U accommodates four hard drives and as much as 16GB of memory and has a $2,209 starting price, while the 2U x346 can accommodate up to six drives and 16GB of memory and has a $2,239 starting price. And the upgraded HS20 blade server starts at $3,559 for two processors and 2GB of memory.

•  HP, the No. 1 seller of Intel-based servers, also has 1U and 2U rack-mounted models, the ProLiant DL360 G4 and DL380 G4, respectively. Starting prices are $2,349 and $3,449 for the models. Stand-alone ML350 G4 and ML370 G4 servers, with starting prices of $1,529 and $2,899, also will be joined by an updated blade server, the BL20p, whose price will be announced when it ships Sept. 1.

•  Tatung Science & Technology is releasing new rack-mounted machines for hosting Internet games, business software and scientific applications.

Other companies supporting the new dual-processor products include Acer, Appro, California Digital, Fujitsu, Gateway, Hitachi, Kraftway, LanChao, Lenovo, LinuxNetworx, NEC, Quanta, Rackable Systems, SuperMicro, Toshiba, Verari and Wistron.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.