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Intel server chip coming soon

Despite problems, the chipmaker says server computers using its new high-end Xeon processor should be available within weeks.

Despite some problems, Intel stated that server computers using its new high-end Xeon processor should be available in one to two weeks.

Last month, Intel delayed their release because of a bug that manifests itself when four Xeon chips are used in one server. But yesterday's statement essentially means that the first stage of the chip giant's push into the upper echelons of corporate computing looks to be back on track.

In the process of fixing this earlier bug, Intel came across another glitch that interferes with the functioning of error correcting code (ECC) technology, according to Intel spokesman Bill Miller. ECC automatically corrects discrepancies in stored data and has become a central feature for high-end servers.

Intel's woes began when it was discovered that four-processor Xeon servers would "freeze up" in certain circumstances. Technically, the problem existed in the 450NX chipset, used in powerful "four-way" servers. Other Xeon-compatible chipsets did not cause similar problems.

Intel identified the latest bug to developers earlier this summer and has validated a "workaround," Miller added. Essentially, Xeon chips and chipsets require more rigorous testing than before. A slight delay results because all parts have to be retested. Like the first bug, the ECC problem exists in the interaction between the processor and the 450NX chipset.

Miller said that computer makers can ship their four-way servers now or wait for Xeon components that has passed the new testing procedures. Since most customers want ECC, most computer manufacturers will likely wait.

The additional delay, however, will only last one or two weeks. Miller emphatically denied reports that Xeon servers will be delayed indefinitely. Intel has also resolved the initial Xeon bug, Miller said.

Workstations are not affected by the problem, according to Miller, since these systems utilize the 440GX chipset rather than the 450NX chipset. Intel will continue testing on the 450NX chipset, Miller said. So far, Dell, Gateway, and Hewlett-Packard have released Xeon workstations.

A Dell spokesman said that the newfound bug will not affect its workstations, which are still shipping.

Intel's explanation, however, has not convinced everyone. ECC is controlled primarily by circuitry in the main processor, according to Ashok Kumar, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, meaning the chipset has very little to do with it. As a result, ECC problems could potentially be lurking with all Xeon systems. Workstations built by Dell, Gateway, and HP all feature ECC memory.

Intel's push into the high-end "enterprise" computing space has this year has so far been marked by slight stumbles.

First, Intel moved the release of its 64-bit Merced chip from late 1999 until mid-2000. Then, on the eve of the Xeon's release, Intel announced that four-way servers would be delayed because of a bug.

Xeon processors are essentially Pentium II processors with additional high-speed cache memory, among other features. One of Xeon's chief selling points for server vendors has been that up to four chips can be used in standard server configurations. Only two Pentium IIs can be used in standard server configurations.

A 450-MHz version of the Xeon chip containing 512K, 1MB, or 2MB of secondary cache memory will come out in September, probably around the time of a scheduled price cut for September 13. Current Xeon chips contain 512KB or 1MB of cache memory, and top off at 400 MHz.

The 450-MHz chip with 2MB of cache will sell for $3,692, the 1MB model will sell for $2,675, and the 512KB version will go for $1,059 in volume when released, according to analysts' estimates. The price for the 400-MHz chips will be close to these figures, though prices could well drop by then.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.