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Intel rolls out new Xeon processors

Compaq, Dell, HP, and NEC are among those taking advantage of Intel's newest chip for server computers.

Intel introduced improved versions of its Xeon processor today, and several companies followed suit with powerful four-processor servers that take advantage of the new chip.

After months of delay, the world's leading chipmaker unveiled 450-MHz versions of its high-performance Xeon with as much as 2MB of secondary (or L2) cache, special high-speed memory that keeps the chips fed with data and instructions. More importantly, up to four of the processors can be used in a single server, which will allow PC vendors to make hardware that can more acutely compete with servers based around Reduced Instruction Computing Set (RISC) processors.

Single processor Xeon systems with the 450-MHz chip range in price from around $7,000 to $20,000 but are still less expensive than RISC machines.

Four-processor Xeon systems, which will be followed shortly by eight processor Xeon servers, have so far proven a difficult goal for Intel and its partners. Xeons for four-processor servers have been repeatedly delayed and, even when Intel could manufacture some of the chips, these came out in relatively small numbers, said sources.

Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer, Data General, NEC Computer Systems, Toshiba, Micron, Hitachi PC, Gateway, IBM, Intergraph, and others released servers--and a few workstations--using the new chips or announced that they would release some in the near future.

RISC stalwart SGI will announce its first Intel-based servers on Monday.

The Xeon chip is essentially a souped up version of the Pentium II. The core of both chips is the same, but the Xeon contains additional features that help it boost performance of servers and workstations. The Xeon's cache runs at the same clock speed as the chip, instead of half as fast, which boosts performance. Also, while a Pentium II comes with 512K of cache and can accommodate systems with two processors, the Xeon will come with 512K, 1MB, or 2MB of secondary cache and can be used in one-, two-, and powerful four-processor servers.

Who's making Xeon servers
A partial list of vendors announcing four-way Xeon servers today:

•  Compaq, Dell, HP, Gateway, Micron, NEC Computer Systems, IBM, Toshiba, Hitachi, Intergraph, Unisys, Data General

Source: Various

Much anticipated, the more complicated members of the Xeon line have been plagued with glitches since the debut of the Xeon family in June of last year.

First, 400-MHz Xeon chips for "four-way" servers were delayed because of a bug that knocked out the error correcting code (ECC), a data-checking feature which server vendors require. While fixing that bug, Intel found another.

Even after Intel found a testing procedure to circumvent the bug in the four-way 400-MHz Xeons, the chips remained in short supply. Some major server vendors complained of extended backlogs of customer orders. Intel also delayed its upcoming 64-bit "Merced" chip during this time because of manufacturing issues.

By October, Intel announced that it had redesigned the internal circuitry of the chip and cured these problems. However, this meant that the four-way version of the 450-MHz Xeon had to be delayed form an original fall launch date until now. Similarly, eight-way Xeon servers, originally due toward the end of 1998 from some vendors, will only appear later this quarter.

Volume prices for Intel's Xeon
Speed, in MHz Cache Size Price
450 2MB $3,692
450 1MB $1,980
450 512KB $824
400 1MB $1,980
400 512KB $824
Source: Intel

The sheer number of Xeon and Merced chips are dwarfed by the number of Pentium II and Celeron chips the company makes, but the more complex chips are important for the company's future because they carry higher profit margins. Despite the delays, however, Intel and PC manufacturers have been successful in producing one and two processor workstations built around 400-MHz and 450-MHz Xeons with the smaller cache.

Dell announced both servers and workstations using the new Xeon chips. The Round Rock, Texas, company is incorporating the new 450-MHz Xeons into its PowerEdge 6300 and 6350 servers, targeted at large businesses. A PowerEdge 6300 with a single 450-MHz Xeon and a 512K cache will cost $8,418.

In addition, Dell incorporated the large-cache 450-MHz Xeons into its Precision WorkStation 610 while cutting workstation prices, trimming eight percent from the price of a midrange Precision WorkStation 410.

Compaq, too, is beefing up four different models of its ProLiant servers with the new Xeon chips. The ProLiant 5500, 6000, 6500, and 7000 servers all will be available with as many as four Xeon 450 MHz chips. Compaq is improving its Smartarray 3100E storage system to make it more robust and easier to reconfigure or expand.

Compaq further introduced a new low-end server, the ProLiant 400, which comes with an ordinary Pentium II chip. Replacing the Prosignia 200, it will cost less than $1,500. NEC Computer Systems will today introduce Express5800 servers with 450-MHz Xeons using up to four chips and either 512K, 1MB, or 2MB of L2 cache. A single-processor version with 512K of cache, 128MB of RAM, a sophisticated storage system, and an Ethernet controller will cost $11,594.

Hewlett-Packard also is confident that the Xeon bugs and supply problems have been fixed, said David Green of HP's Enterprise Netserver division. "We held off for some time to sift through situations there with the processor difficulties," Green said. "The supply has been difficult. But we're not expecting that to be a problem going forward."

HP will ship its Netservers with up to four Xeons and up to 2MB of L2 cache in the near future. With the increased speed and cache size, HP has seen a performance improvement of about 13 percent over previous Xeon systems, Green said.