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Workstations see most benefit from Xeon

Intel's new chip is a boon to efforts to make feistier workstations, but server makers say the larger benefits of the upgrade won't come until later.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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Intel's new Pentium III Xeon chip is a boon to computer companies' efforts to make feistier workstations, but server makers say the larger benefits of the upgrade won't come until later.

The new chip, which runs at 500 MHz and soon at 550 MHz, is faster than the Pentium II Xeon predecessor and adds 70 new instructions, called SIMD instructions, for better 3D graphics, video performance, and audio streaming. For workstations, this is great news because companies can sell high-end workstations to designers and special effects experts at relatively low prices.

"There is about a 25 percent performance delta, all other things being equal," said Nick Panayi, product manager for workstation marketing at Compaq Computer.

Dell's John Earl said the new Xeon helps with the geometrical number-crunching grunt work needed to redraw three-dimensional images on the screen, for example, as a computer user rotates a model in a design program. It also helps with lighting effects such as reflections and fog, he added.

The new SIMD instructions mean a minor performance for servers, said several at the Xeon coming-out party yesterday. Instead, most of the benefit of shifting to Pentium III comes from the simple clock speed increase. Enhancements, however, will come next quarter when Intel improves the multiprocessing capabilities of the chip.

The Streaming SIMD Extensions of the new Xeon help floating-point number-crunching performance critical in the workstation realm, "but it's not as useful in the server world," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood.

Hewlett-Packard is seeing "single-digit" performance increases in server tasks as a result of the new instructions, though that figure likely will increase as operating systems are tweaked to take advantage of the technology, said HP's Chris Bennett.

Pentium III Xeon at a glance
500 MHz today, 550 MHz in April
Cache sizes:
500 MHz version comes with 512k, 1MB, or 2MB; 550MHz version won't get the larger cache sizes until 3Q1999.
500 MHz, 512K cache, $931 in units of 1,000. 500 MHz with 2MB cache, $3,692.
New instructions:
Streaming SIMD Extensions speed up number-crunching for workstation jobs like rotating an engineering design. For servers, the extensions will improve some networking operations.
Better than ordinary PIII?
Xeons have faster cache speeds and can be bunched together in groups of four and soon eight for high-powered servers. Xeons can address up to 64 gigabytes of memory instead of just 4 GB, a boon to those with large databases. Also, error correcting code can catch some glitches in data being transferred to and from memory.
Intel will push the chip beyond 600 MHz in 1999. But for workstations, more mainstream Coppermine chips may be just as good for a lower price tag.

Sequent described the significance of the new chip as "clock frequency and cache size," according to Stephen Fry, worldwide product marketing manager.

Intel said instructions offer a 10 percent improvement in server performance in transactions for enterprise resource planning software, made by firms like SAP, and an equal improvement in the handling of the TCP/IP network information. TCP/IP is the method used to transfer information over the Internet.

In database activities, the new instructions improve server performance by "pre-fetching"--that is, by putting information in high-speed cache memory earlier so the processor spends less time waiting for the relatively slow ordinary memory to come up with the needed information, said Dileep Bhandarkar, director of system architecture at Intel's workstation products division. Server operating system software must be rewritten to take advantage of the new instructions, Bhandarkar said.

Improved cache access is particularly important on applications for data mining and business intelligence, said Alex Yost, worldwide product marketing manager at IBM.

While megahertz isn't everything when it comes to server performance, it helps. The advantages that Intel is able to gain out of clock speed is evident from the clock speeds of some of the Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) chips, the powerful processors that run many high-end corporate servers and workstations. While Alpha processors can run as high as 600 MHz, many cutting edge RISC server processors still run in the 300-MHz range and lower.

"Every time they speed up, they gain a little ground," Brookwood said.

One server task that benefits from the new instructions is video streaming. Real Networks, for instance, saw a 10 percent gain when a system was updated to support the new instructions, said Erik Zimmerman Herz of Real Networks. At the Xeon rollout yesterday in San Francisco, HP and Real Networks demonstrated video delivery from a Red Hat Linux server.

Though the operating system had to be updated to take advantage of the new instructions, it took Red Hat developer Doug Ledford just three days to write the patch after Real Networks put in the request, said Red Hat's Howard Jacobson. The patch is now downloadable, he added.

Though adding support for the new instructions isn't a no-brainer, it's an easier transition than when Intel added support for the MMX instructions to its earlier Pentium chips a few years ago, said Jeff Edson of Intergraph. Essentially, the task amounts to rewriting a video card's driver, he said.

Do you need Xeon for workstations?
Ironically, although servers are getting a smaller boost from Xeon than workstations, the biggest overall impact in the market will likely come in servers. The majority of Intel-based workstations will likely come with the less expensive non-Xeon Pentium III processor, according to Compaq's Panayi, among others.

The performance delta, moreover, isn't hugely different between the Pentium III and the Pentium III Xeons typically incorporated in workstations. Most workstation makers are using the Xeon with 512KB of cache, not the more expensive 1MB or 2MB versions, he said. The only difference between the Pentium III and the 512KB cache Xeon is that the cache is twice as fast on the Xeon, according to Intel and others.

"The volume is definitely going to be there [with Pentium III], but the price difference between the Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon is getting compressed," he said.

The situation could get even more confused in the third quarter when Intel releases the "Coppermine" and "Cascades" processors, said another source. Coppermine and Cascades are Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon chips, respectively, which will include 256KB of integrated cache. Having the integrated cache will eliminate the cache speed difference that currently separates Xeons from ordinary Pentium III chips. Therefore, little practical difference will exist between Xeon and Pentium III chips for workstations.

Still, "There is a portion of the workstation market that is very performance intensive," said Anand Chandrasekher, general manager of the workstation products division at Intel. With the new chips, "you can model close to reality."

Multiprocessor mania
Intel will take a big step forward in the second quarter when it finally releases its Profusion chipset for eight-way servers.

"We intend to move our architecture up as far and as fast as we can," said Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Business Group.

Server makers, such as Sequent, are already selling Xeon servers that contain eight, 12, and 32 processors. These systems, however, are based on specialized architectures. The Profusion chipset will allow server makers to build systems with standard parts, thereby lowering the price.

Profusion has been delayed a number of times. Originally due in late 1998, the chipset won't appear in volume until the second quarter, said Otellini. Part of the delay has come about to perform testing and validation, he said.