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Intel confirms server chip bug

Intel confirmed that a bug exists in the Xeon Pentium II processor when the chip is used in "four-way" server configurations.

Intel confirmed that a bug exists in the Xeon Pentium II processor when the chip is used in "four-way" server configurations, a problem that rules out the release of some Xeon servers in conjunction with the chip's scheduled debut on Monday.

Regardless of the bug, sources inside the computer industry say that only a handful of Xeon workstations or servers may be available for a month or more.

Computer vendors, chip brokers, and other sources report that Intel has only shipped samples of the chip. While the chipmaker disputes that the shipping schedule for Xeon differs from past chip releases, motherboard makers and chip vendors have said that by now they normally would have plenty of the product.

The Xeon bug exists within the processor but manifests itself when it is used with the upcoming 450NX chip set, which is designed for Xeon servers, said Tom Waldrop, an Intel spokesman. The chipset and processor essentially disagree on how to manage four-way computing. As a result, the server "freezes up" in certain circumstances.

To get around the problem, Intel will continue testing on the 450NX chipset and attempt to come out with a full solution in a few weeks, Waldrop said.

"It is a software fix. It will not require a change of silicon so it can be implemented very quickly," said Nathan Brookwood, semiconductor analyst with Dataquest.

In addition to the first Xeon processors, next week Intel will release the 440GX chipset, a two-way chipset for Xeon optimized for workstations. Most major computer vendors will attend the event to announce support for Xeon.

Kelly Spang, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said the delay will mean that four-way Xeon servers may not come out for some time. Originally, the four-way servers were due approximately 60 days from the launch. If availability is a problem, volume rollouts could be further delayed.

Although the duration will apparently be short, the bug is as a symbolic black eye for the company. Xeon is the first Pentium II chip slated for four-way processing; to date, Pentium IIs have only been capable of two-way processing in standard hardware configurations.

Four-way processing with fast Xeon chips has been pitched by Intel and its partners as a sign that the Intel architecture can start to take over more of the "enterprise" computing functions currently dominated by the Unix platform.

Intel also plans to charge quite a bit for Xeon, in an effort to bolster sagging margins. The 400-MHz version of the chip with 1MB of secondary cache memory will sell for $2,836 in volume while the 512K version will sell for $1,124, according to sources. 450-MHz versions of Xeon with up to 2MB of cache memory will come out in September.

The bug is unlikely to affect Xeon-based workstations. Most are based around one- and two-way processor designs and the 440GX chipset. As a result, vendors can deliver functional workstations as soon as they have Xeon parts.

For servers, the picture is less clear. A number of vendors will introduce individual boxes that are capable of one-, two- or four-way processing .Whether these vendors opt to release a Xeon server with the 440GX workstation chipset remains to be seen.

Dell, for instance, has said it will announce a single PowerEdge server at the Xeon release and that will be capable of four-way processing. Shipment of the servers would occur whenever the parts became available, according to Dell. Under such a strategy, this would mean the new PowerEdge is held up until the 450NX chipset is ready.

As of yesterday, Dell had no plans to release a Xeon server capable of running only two processors.

The larger question is when Xeon chips will begin to roll out in numbers. Chip dealers and motherboard manufacturers contacted by NEWS.COM have said that they have not yet received Xeon processors or the 440GX chipsets. Only samples, said one source, have been sent out. One computer vendor said that it will begin assembling Xeon servers after it receives the processors and other parts.

"I find this unusual," said Spang. Without considering this latest availability issue, she predicted that workstations should start to come out in volume in 30 days, while one- and two-way servers could begin to roll out within 60 days with four-way servers following shortly afterward.

Brookwood added that shipment of some processors by this time would be normal. The lack of chips in the wholesale arena, however, might be as a result of a strategy by Intel to prevent a glut.

"In the past, when Intel has shipped a bunch of chips, they have ended up at Fry's," he said. "Maybe they are trying to control that."

Waldrop denied that the shipping schedules differs from past business practices, adding that the bug has not impacted Intel's shipping schedule. Intel will release the Xeon processor next Monday at its headquarters in Santa Clara, California.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.