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Intel puts on its show with Prestonia

The chip giant on Monday will unveil its first server chip based on the Pentium 4. It's all about staking a claim in the world of high-end computing.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
5 min read
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What to expect at Intel Developer Forum
Michael Kanellos, senior editor, CNET News.com
Intel on Monday will unveil its first server chip based on the Pentium 4 architecture as it continues to stake a larger claim in the upper echelons of the computing world.

The company's new Xeon chip, code-named Prestonia, will feature a host of improvements that will, along with complementary technology coming out the same day, provide a performance boost to one- and two-processor Intel-based servers.

To date, Intel has sold Xeon chips based on the older Pentium III architecture in this market, although the company already sells a Pentium 4/Xeon similar to Prestonia in the workstation market.

"Depending on the particular benchmark you use, it is 20 to 30 to 50 percent faster," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. "You're not going to get twice the performance, but you get more, and it doesn't cost much more."

Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell Computer, among others, will show off new servers based on Prestonia this week at the Intel Developer Forum, a four-day conference dedicated to all things Intel starting Monday in San Francisco.

Among other highlights, Intel will display the first Pentium 4 for mobiles, discuss a low-power mobile chip for 2003 called Banias, present updates on tech standards, and sketch out how Moore's Law will begin to affect other parts of the industry.

Prestonia in some ways will also mark the start of an active year in the lucrative server market for the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant. Along with Prestonia, Intel will release the E7500 chipset, code-named Plumas, marking the effective return of the company into the server chipset market. Chipsets manage data traffic for the processor and connect the processor to memory and other components.

In March, at the CeBit trade show in Germany, Intel will release a Pentium 4-based Xeon that can be used in servers capable of handling four or more processors, according to sources. These chips will also sport a new 1MB third level of cache, reservoirs of memory located near the processor for rapid data access.

Prestonia at a glance
Features of new Intel server chip

Speed: 2.2 GHz

Memory capacity: 16GB

Memory type: DDR RAM

Input-output: Six PCI-X buses

Source: Intel

Starting next week, Intel will also crank up the momentum on McKinley, the next version of the Itanium chip, which will compete directly against chips from Sun Microsystems and IBM.

While Intel controls approximately 90 percent of the one- and two-processor server market, and a substantial portion of the four-way market, it's a relative stranger to the highest regions of the server market.

The company has touted McKinley as its entry vehicle here, but slow customer acceptance, a potential lack of software and macroeconomic circumstances could stump its effort.

Concurrently, the company will likely begin to more openly discuss the successors to McKinley, including Madison, Montecito, Deerfield and Chivano.

Prestonia inside
Prestonia enhances the Xeon line in three ways, according to Lisa Hambrick, director of enterprise processor marketing at Intel. First, by switching to the Pentium 4 architecture, Intel can drastically boost the clock speed. The old server Xeon topped out at 1.4GHz. The new one debuts at 1.8GHz, 2GHz and 2.2GHz, and will eventually pass 10GHz, she said.

"You can't reach that with a Pentium III," Hambrick said. "You start to flatten out. You can only go so high in frequency."

Second, the chip, in conjunction with chipsets and other components, will feature wider and faster buses--data pathways between the processor and everything else in the computer. Greater aggregate bandwidth means greater performance.

Prestonia, for instance, comes with a 400MHz main bus between the processor and memory, faster than the 133MHz bus on Pentium III Xeons. The chips will also be capable of accessing data from 16GB of memory vs. just 12GB before.

Prestonia will also work with chipsets featuring PCI-X, an input-output channel between the chipset and storage devices or networks that runs at 133MHz, twice as fast as the older PCI standard. Plumas, which features six PCI-X channels, can handle 3.2GB of data per second.

Third, the chips will come with hyper-threading, a new technology from Intel that lets a single chip execute two applications or processes at the same time. In a hypothetical example, if one of the processor's integer units is churning graphics calculations, hyper-threading will allow the floating-point unit to tackle another problem. It's similar to having two processors, but not as powerful.

"They may be glamorizing it a little bit, but the claims are valid," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "There will be ample opportunity to exploit the hardware resources."

One benefit of hyper-threading is that most current applications that have been designed (or multi-threaded) to run on two processor servers can get some advantage out of it, Hambrick said. Some companies are also further fine-tuning their applications specifically for wringing out performance from hyper-threaded chips.

The chip also features 512KB of secondary cache, a reservoir of memory located near the processor for rapid data access, more than most Pentium III-based Xeons.

The commercial picture
So who will buy Prestonia systems? Computer executives and customers have generally spoken positively about the prospects for servers incorporating the Pentium 4 Xeons. Historically, Xeon-based servers have been relatively inexpensive compared with RISC-Unix servers. The 2.2GHz chip sells for $615, while the 2GHz sells for $417 and the 1.8GHz goes for $251.

To some degree, the Xeon line has also slightly dimmed the appeal of Itanium-based servers, which have commercially made only a marginal impact so far.

"You've got really good Xeon-class products," McCarron said. "If they weren't there, Intel would probably sell more Itaniums."

While Intel will continue to upgrade the Xeon line, new chips won't be introduced as fast as desktop chips. The server market doesn't require as rapid an upgrade cycle. Intel will release a new Xeon for one- and two-processor servers every three to six months, Hambrick said, while processors for servers with four or more processors will come out every nine to 12 months.