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Xeon chip problem delays servers

Makers of server computers are grappling with a flaw inside two Xeon processors that is holding up some of the highest-performing systems devised around the Intel chips.

Companies that manufacture server computers are grappling with a recently discovered flaw inside two Xeon processors that is holding up some of the highest-performing systems devised around the Intel chips.

Less than a month after shipping the first systems that can handle eight of the high-end processors, many server makers are putting on the brakes because of a problem involving the way some of the 550-MHz Pentium Xeon processors interact with a particular motherboard.

Large, multiprocessor servers like these are used to power e-commerce sites and other major back-end operations. The eight-way Intel systems are designed to compete against servers from Sun and other RISC-Unix server makers.

The problem is not the first to affect the Xeon. Last year, the first four-processor Xeon servers were held up because of glitches. Eight-processor Intel servers have also been repeatedly held up. Originally expected in late 1997, eight-processor Intel systems only recently came out. Delays occurred because of problems with the Profusion chipset incorporated in these boxes.

The latest flaw occurs because of a problem with the chip itself, Intel said. "It's definitely a processor problem; that's what our engineering team concluded," said Intel spokesman OttoPijkper, who cautioned "the problem only occurs in a complex set of circumstances."

The flaw crops up when 550-MHz Xeons, with either 512KB or 1MB of secondary cache memory, are used in an eight-processor server with a Saber motherboard, which was designed by Intel. The voltage from the processors in this scenario can exceed the recommended voltage limits and cause a server go to "blue screen," or crash, according to Pijkper.

The bug does not occur with the 550-MHz Xeon that features the more deluxe 2MB of cache or when the 512KB or 1MB versions are used with other motherboards.

As a result, Intel has continued shipping the processors, recommending that customers simply not use certain chips with the Saber.

Nonetheless, the erratum is causing a drag on some product plans. The Xeon with 1MB of cache is proving to be one of the more popular chips for eight-way Intel servers, said Pipjker. The 512KB and 1MB chips also costs a lot less than the 2MB version. The 512KB and 1MB chip, in volume, cost $980 and $1,980 per chip. The 2MB version costs $3,692.

"It's not a matter of making changes on the production side--this is a design issue," added one PC manufacturer, who requested anonymity. "The reason it affects the 512KB and 1MB version is that they're earlier designs than the 2MB version, which was fixed."

At least one PC manufacturer, however, speculated the problem might be related to Saber.

Both Dell Computer and IBM have decided to sell only eight-processor servers with the 2MB of cache for now. Compaq Computer, however, which designs its own motherboard, will offer severs with the less-expensive 1MB version.

Intel is working on fixing the problem with the processors and could have it resolved within three weeks, the spokesman speculated.

But the fix will come too late for PC manufacturers that have shipped eight-way servers with faulty processors. The problem also affects certain systems shipped with four processors, sources said.

Compaq was touting today the fact that it makes its own motherboards.

"Our customers sometimes wonder what the value add is for Compaq designing its own motherboard for servers, because no one really does that anymore," said Paul Gottsegen, North America director of Compaq's industry standard server division.

"From a competitive standpoint, it's been a killer for the competition," Gottsegen said. "There are customers who are probably going to get scared away when they hear about the issues with the Intel motherboard and the fact all these vendors have it but cannot ship servers."