ServerWorks vies for Intel servers' heart

The company is to introduce its new chipset, replete with features such as high-end memory and the ability to let computers have spare memory banks.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Building the silicon plumbing inside Intel servers is becoming an increasingly competitive field, with Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Broadcom releasing new products this week.

Each of the companies is debuting new server chipsets, the chips that connect CPUs (central processing units) to memory and input-output for networking and storage. If the processor is the brain of a computer, the chipset is the spinal cord that joins it to the rest of the body. Compared with processors, chipsets are cheap, selling at less than $100.

Chipsets are essential supporting elements to back up the arrival of new CPUs--in this week's case, the "Prestonia" CPU from Intel that inaugurates the new Xeon server versions of the Pentium 4. The Xeon chips come with hyper-threading, a feature that lets a single CPU act a little like two.

ServerWorks, a Broadcom subsidiary, is the powerhouse of the Intel server chipset market, with its products used in the most popular models from Dell Computer, Compaq Computer, IBM, HP and others. On Monday, the company will announce its Grand Champion LE (GC-LE) chipset at the Intel Developer Forum.

The GC-LE chipset includes two PCI-X bridges running at 3.2 gigabytes per second each. The bridges create four channels for connecting the processor to network cards, storage systems and other devices.

The chipset also has high-end memory features, including support for higher-speed double data rate (DDR) memory. Another feature lets computers have spare memory banks that are mirror images of the primary memory; the technique lets failed primary memory be replaced while the system is running.

Intel also has a new chipset called the E7500, code-named Plumas, for Prestonia systems. Plumas accommodates six PCI-X channels compared with the GC-LE's four, but ServerWorks wins out in terms of data transfer capacity, said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. Consequently, the GC-LE likely will outperform Plumas.

"There is a potential for bottlenecks between the PCI-X bridge and the Northbridge with the Intel chipset," Brookwood said.

ServerWorks also plans to release the GC-HE, which will be used in systems to be released in March with the "Foster MP" version of Xeon for four-processor servers. Chief Executive Raju Vegesna said the GC-HE will be used in four-processor systems from 10 of the 10 largest server companies. The GC-LE is used by 9 of the 10, with only Dell bucking the trend. Dell, however, will use the more lofty GC-HE in its new PowerEdge 4600.

Hewlett-Packard also has a new chipset of its own, the zx1, but for a different part of the market: forthcoming systems based on Intel's "McKinley" chip. McKinley is the second member of the Itanium processor family, a brand-new 64-bit architecture co-developed by HP and Intel that's still largely confined to limited testing uses.

The zx1 will be used in systems with as many as four McKinley CPUs, HP plans to announce Monday at the Intel Developer Forum. The chipset also supports PCI-X and AGP 4x, a specialized graphics pathway.

IBM and Compaq are working on their own chipsets as well. IBM's "Summit," now called the Enterprise X Architecture and used in the x360 server, is used to build four-Xeon systems with the Foster MP chip. Later, IBM will sell Summit systems joined together to form eight-processor, 12-processor and 16-processor servers.

Compaq, meanwhile, has chipsets in the works for eight-CPU Foster MP systems and 32-processor McKinley systems.