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Intel unveils 6-core chip, as Unisys touts 96 cores

The six-core "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 processor makes its official debut. Unisys is using it in a new server, though with a catch.

As Intel officially unveiled its six-core "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 processor Monday, Unisys rolled out servers boasting up to 96 cores--with a catch.

As expected, Intel launched the Dunnington chip for high-end servers, the company's first six-core processor and last of its Penryn-class chips. Penryn will be followed by the Nehalem microarchitecture, due to appear initially as the Core i7 processor in the fourth quarter.

The Xeon 7400 boasts significantly better performance due to its 16MB cache memory and half-dozen cores.

Intel "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 is the first six-core processor
Intel Xeon 7400 is first 6-core processor Brooke Crothers

The Xeon 7400 is also one of the first Intel chips to have a monolithic design. In other words, all six cores will be on one piece of silicon. To date, for any processor having more than two cores, Intel has put two separate pieces of silicon--referred to as die--inside one chip package.

Unisys is in the vanguard of server vendors offering systems using the 7400 series processor. On Monday, the Blue Bell, Pa.-based computer vendor announced the ES7000 Model 7600R Enterprise Server, a 16- socket server providing up to 96 processor cores.

In addition to being better at handling complex database applications, one of the most compelling features of six-core servers is consolidation: collapsing many servers into a few servers. Unisys said it has demonstrated consolidation of 64 SQL Server databases into a single four-socket, Xeon 7400 processor configuration, with 24 total processor cores. In essence, this collapses a conventional "commodity server farm" of 64 single-socket, dual-core Xeon processor servers into a single server configuration, Unisys said.

There's an odd catch, however, that will affect the highest of high-end configurations. "Because Microsoft Windows operating system support is limited to a 64-core environment, within a single OS instance, we'll support up to 64 cores," said Colin Lacey, a Unisys marketing vice president.

"You'd actually have 96 cores physically within the system. But then you would disable two cores in each socket. So you'd actually be running these sockets at four active cores each (out of six)," Lacey said.

Lacey said this condition is necessary to deliver the highest performance in a Xeon 7400-based server running Windows, though he expects to rectify the 64-processor limitation in the future. He added that he wouldn't consider 64 cores to be a limitation in the "real world" for most customers, who would in most cases opt for servers with a smaller number of cores.

Linux does not have this limitation, Lacey said.

Advanced Micro Devices pre-emptively chimed in on the Xeon 7400 series last week. "Intel has taken the old front-side bus architecture and added 6 cores to it," according to an AMD statement. The company's Opteron processors have jettisoned the front-side bus--a data path between the processor and the memory controller--in favor of putting the memory controller on the same piece of silicon as the processor to speed performance. Intel has done this with its upcoming Nehalem architecture too.

Prices for the ES7000 Model 7600R range from $26,430 to $135,000.

Software vendors are also supporting the Xeon 7400 based platforms, including Citrix, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Red Hat, SAP, and VMware, Intel said.

Pricing for the Xeon 7000 Sequence processor in quantities of 1,000 ranges from $856 to $2,729.

Other server vendors announcing servers include Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell.