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New chip powers high-end Intel servers

Intel releases three new Xeon chips for four- and eight-processor servers in a move to increase the pressure on Sun Microsystems.

Intel released three new Xeon chips for four- and eight-processor servers in a move to increase the pressure on Sun Microsystems.

The new chips--formerly code-named Gallatin--are enhanced versions of Intel's Xeon line for multiprocessor servers. The fastest of the new chips runs at 2GHz and contains a 2MB tertiary cache, a reservoir of memory for rapid data access. The older Xeon, which came out in March, tops out at 1.6GHz and has a 1MB cache.

"The performance speed-up is in the 20 (percent) to 38 percent range" on various applications, said Lisa Graff, director of enterprise processor marketing at Intel. "Cache (has) a huge impact on performance."

IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell Computer, among others, will adopt the chips fairly rapidly, as the new chips cost the same as the older Xeons and can fit into existing servers without a great deal of re-engineering. These servers start at $6,000 and can cost more than $100,000 when fully configured.

The four- and eight-processor server market has become the primary battleground in the war between Sun and Intel. Servers made with Intel chips running Windows or Linux dominate the one- and two-processor segment.

Servers running RISC (reduced instruction set computer) chips such as Sun's UltraSparc III, and Unix operating systems, though, still dominate the more lucrative parts of the market. RISC servers still account for 60 percent of server revenue worldwide, according to figures from research firm IDC, although they make up only 12 percent of units shipped.

With the new Xeons, IBM and other companies say they can undercut and outperform Sun. Just as important, large organizations are increasingly willing to buy Intel-based machines for running large databases and other tasks historically allotted to RISC machines.

"We're getting a lot of customers coming from Sun to Intel on the x440," said Doug Outhout, director of high-performance xSeries servers at IBM. The x440 is IBM's high-end Intel machine and is capable of running 16 chips at once.

Sun could not be reached for comment.

Still, it's going to be one long, slow war. Sun, IBM and HP, which also sell RISC-Unix servers, continue to enhance the performance of their 16- and 32- processor machines while improving the value proposition on the lower-end boxes.

"The Unix market has really learned in the past year about doing things less expensively," Outhout said.

Jeff Hewitt, an analyst at Gartner, said that, except for IBM's x440, which is experiencing growth, most of the new Intel systems would probably be bought to replace existing four- and eight-processor servers.

A close count
The Gallatin servers to some degree will also compete against servers running Intel's more expensive Itanium chip. Benchmark tests show that the difference between the Gallatin servers and current Itanium servers isn't huge. On the Transaction Performance Council's TPC-C benchmark, which counts transactions per second, the four-processor Gallatin box is currently only "a little bit underneath" a similar Itanium system, Intel's Graff said.

"That's a real problem for Intel," Hewitt said. "Until the applications are there (for Itanium) and until the operating systems are there with all of the capabilities, you can probably do most of the things you want to do with the Xeon products."

Graff said that the close performance between the current Gallatin systems and Itanium comes from the oscillating nature of the product releases. The last Itanium, Itanium 2, came out this summer. Madison, a new version of Itanium coming next year, will open the gap.

"You will see the Itanium line consistently ahead of Xeon," Graff said. The Gallatin systems also handily beat published benchmarks from Sun.

Opteron, AMD's server chip, could put pressure on Intel. "That has some significant benefits," IBM's Outhout said. "We think they have the opportunity to do some serious damage to Intel next year."

IBM will use the new chip in the four-processor x255 server, which can be equipped with its own storage unit, the x360 for racks, and the x440. An eight-way x440 achieved a TPC-C benchmark of 111,024 transactions per second.

The chip will displace the older chip over the next eight to 10 weeks, according to IBM.

Dell, meanwhile, will start offering Gallatin in the PowerEdge 6600 and 6650 servers, a representative said. The line starts at $5,999.

HP will offer the chip on the ProLiant ML570 and ProLiant DL760 servers. A fully configured ProLiant achieved a TPC-C score of 111,805, according to HP. Both IBM and HP will insert the chip into blade servers in 2003. Blades are far thinner than standard servers and can be managed more easily from a central location.

The new chips run at 1.5GHz, 1.9GHz and 2GHz. The 1.5GHz and 1.9GHz models contain only 1MB of cache, while the 2GHz version contains 2MB. The chips are made on the 130-nanometer manufacturing process, while the older Xeons were made on the 180-nanometer process. The nanometer figure refers to the average size of features on the chip. Shrinking the chip allowed Intel to insert more cache, Graff said.

The 1.5GHz version sells for $1,177 in 1,000-unit quantities, while the 1.9GHz and 2GHz versions sell, respectively, for $1,980 and $3,692.