Intel hustles for dual-core Xeon debut

"Paxville" is intended to recapture some turf lost to competitor AMD, but it's likely to be quickly outmoded.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--Intel launched its first dual-core server processor Monday, a Xeon that makes up some ground lost to rival AMD but it's due to be superseded by a more powerful model in just a few months.

Dual-core processors have two processing engines on a single slice of silicon, increasing the amount of computing power a single server can handle. It's an approach that has been used in high-end server chips for several years from IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard but now is arriving in mainstream x86 processors such as Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

Intel took an unusual step to catch up to AMD, which released its dual-core Opteron in April. Manufacturing was going so well with Intel's "Paxville" chip--a dual-core model designed for higher-end servers with four or more processors--that Intel released a version for dual-processor servers. The urgency of the move is illustrated by the fact that Intel plans to release what was to have been its inaugural dual-core Xeon, a chip code-named "Dempsey," in the first quarter of 2006.


What's new:
Intel launched "Paxville," its first dual-core server processor, designed for higher-end servers with four or more processors.

Bottom line:
Intel released the chip earlier than expected in an unusual step to catch up to AMD, which released its dual-core Opteron in April.

More stories on dual-core processors

In addition, the original high-end version of Paxville for multiprocessor servers, called the Xeon 7000, will be available within 60 days and run at clock speeds up to 3GHz, said Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's server platforms group. The chip is arriving "several months" earlier than expected.

Only in 2003 did AMD become a serious contender in the market for processors designed for servers, higher-end machines that handle round-the-clock jobs such as e-commerce Web sites and inventory tracking. The company has jumped ahead of Intel with several key features and gained share against its Silicon Valley competitor, but Intel's greater manufacturing capacity and customer reach have partially offset AMD's gains.

And AMD remains a step ahead, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "The Intel product is clearly an improvement over the single-core chip in terms of performance, but I think AMD will continue to win most of the benchmarks," he said. Intel will be better able to counter AMD's power efficiency with its "Woodcrest" Xeon, which is due in the second half of 2006, and to counter AMD's performance with "Whitefield," which is due in 2007, Brookwood predicted.

As expected, HP and IBM joined Dell in announcing servers with the processor Monday. Dell announced its dual-core Xeon models in September. Sun, HP and IBM already offer servers using AMD's dual-core Opteron.

Intel's dual-core Xeon, designed for dual-processor servers, runs at 2.8GHz and costs $1,043 in quantities of 1,000. That's a big notch more expensive than the $690 Intel charges for the high-end single-core Xeon, running at 3.6GHz.

"This is a premium segment for early adopters of dual core," Skaugen said.

Intel will change its pricing with Dempsey, when there no longer would be a price premium, Skaugen said. Dempsey will be built with a new manufacturing process with 65-nanometer features, packing a given amount of circuitry onto a smaller and therefore less expensive slice of silicon than today's 90-nanometer process.

AMD unimpressed
AMD had an uncharitable interpretation of Intel's Paxville strategy. "It's clear the market is forcing Intel to respond to AMD, and Intel is betting its success on another stopgap solution," Henri Richard, AMD's chief sales and marketing officer, said in a statement.

AMD sells multiple versions of its dual-core chips, including a new batch of Opterons running at 2.8GHz that were introduced in September.

Intel says its systems are worth it. Software doesn't need to be changed to run on the new systems, and performance increases by between 13 percent and 50 percent when comparing single-core to dual-core Xeons for dual-processor servers, Skaugen said. With the Xeons geared for multiprocessor servers, the speed boost is as high as 60 percent.

The chipmaker wants a fast transition to dual-core chips. In servers, where more software already is often able to take advantage of multiple cores, 85 percent of chips will be dual core by the end of 2006 and 100 percent by the end of 2007.

For high-performance desktop and mobile computers--those sporting the Pentium brand--at least 70 percent will be dual core by the end of 2006 and at least 90 percent by the end of 2007, said Steve Smith, vice president of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group.

Both versions of Paxville fit into existing server designs, but Dempsey will require a new foundation, a collection of components called a platform, which Intel code-named "Bensley." The "Tulsa"--a successor to Paxville due in the second half of 2006--will be reuse the same "Truland" platform as Paxville and its single-core brethren, "Potomac" and "Cranford," which were released earlier this year.

Existing high-end Truland servers connect processors to the memory and the rest of the system with a front-side bus that runs at a speed of 667MHz today. The Paxville chip will also be available with an 800MHz front-side bus, Intel said.

The Bensley platform will mean some significant changes. Its front-side bus will run at 1066MHz, Skaugen said, and its overall memory capacity will double to 64GB. In addition, it uses fully buffered memory technology called FB-DIMM.

Bensley also will provide more performance per watt than existing designs, he added.

New Paxvlle-based servers
HP, the leader of the x86 server market, announced new servers using both versions of Paxville and said the machines will be available within 60 days.

The dual-processor DL380, a rack-mounted model 3.5 inches thick, has a starting price of $4,200 with dual-core Xeons. The four-processor DL580, 7 inches thick, starts at $7,000. The free-standing ML570, also with four processors, has a starting price of $6,000.

IBM is bringing the dual-core Xeon first to two models: its rack-mounted x346 in mid-October and the x336 in November. The x336 is 1.75 inches thick, while the x346 measures twice that but includes more storage and memory capacity.

IBM's higher-end systems, which use its own x3 chipset, will be released later this year when Intel releases its higher-end Paxville chips, IBM said.

Dell refreshed its entire line of dual-processor servers, including its rack-mounted, blade and free-standing models. The company will bring Paxville to its four-processor servers by the end of the year, spokesman David Lord said.

Sun sells x86 servers using only AMD's Opteron, though it has used Intel chips in the past and said it will again if Intel catches up to AMD technology such as HyperTransport chip-to-chip connections and a built-in memory controller.