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8-chip servers powered up

Major computer makers will demonstrate servers using eight processors in Las Vegas, a technological milestone for the PC crowd.

Eight-processor servers will be all the rage at Comdex.

IBM, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard, among others, will use the conference to demonstrate systems running eight Intel Pentium II Xeon processors. These machines will then come out in the first half of 1999.

Eight-way servers based around standard designs represent a significant technological milestone for the PC crowd. Standard servers based on PC technology can now only accommodate four processors. By doubling the number of chips, these companies will be able to offer machines that narrow the gap with Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC)-based servers. Commercial acceptance is then expected to grow gradually.

Getting an eight-way machine isn't just a matter of putting eight processors in a box and plugging it in.

It's a challenge to get the last four processors to handle any of the work, said Michael Liebow of IBM's Netfinity group, which sells Big Blue's Intel-based servers. IBM engineers are hard at work tackling the problem, Liebow said.

Compaq's eight-way server, on display for those at Comdex willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement, will be an upgrade for its high-end Proliant 7000 server. Compaq engineers are working closely with Intel to develop a chipset for these servers, said Paul Gottsegen, director of Compaq's industry standard server group. It should be available in the first quarter of 1999.

"Once you get past four [processors], there's very little benefit from the last four. The supporting chipsets weren't there, and the caches weren't large enough."

IBM will show a Netfinity server with eight Xeon processors at Comdex, said Mike Corrado, a spokesman for IBM. IBM's eight-way machine is scheduled to ship between the first and second quarter of 1999, he said.

Hewlett-Packard will be showing the LXr 8000, its high-end NT server, with eight 400-MHz Xeon processors, said HP spokeswoman Lynn Hill. When the product ships in the beginning of 1999, it will come with the highest speed Xeon chip available, she said.

In addition, Amdahl, a division of Japanese electronics giant Fujitsu, announced its eight-Xeon computer running Windows NT earlier this week. Fujitsu is displaying the machine at the Oracle Open World conference this week.

Dell Computers won't have an eight-way machine, but the company will be displaying other evidence of the continued proliferation of Intel servers, said spokesman Jerele Neeld. Dell will be showing how Dell PowerEdge servers handle front office and back office tasks at the Bellagio, a giant Las Vegas hotel.

While eight processor Intel servers will start coming out in the first half of 1999, commercial acceptance will be a gradual process, cautioned John Oltsik, an analyst with Forrester Research. The systems might be for sale in 1999, but few applications or operating systems will exist that will be able to take advantage of the new levels of power.

Also at Comdex, corporate buyers will get a chance to see the first demonstration of the K7 processor from Advanced Micro Devices.

The K7 is AMD's next generation processor that has been receiving high marks from analysts. When it arrives commercially in the second half of 1999, the chip could give AMD the technological lead over Intel, according to Keith Difendorff, editor in chief of MicroDesign Resources

AMD will be demonstrating both the chip and the accompanying chipsets and boards. The K7 demonstration at Comdex will run at over 500 MHz.

Early K7 adopters are expected to use the chip in desktops, both for the home and business. Eventually, however, the chip could be AMD's beachhead to get into servers and workstations, some observers have said. AMD itself is aiming the K7 for business use.

Intel's next generation chip, the Katmai, will come out in the first quarter of 1999. The processor, however, will not be demonstrated at Comdex, said an Intel spokeswoman.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network, publisher of News.com.