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Dell pumps up low-end Intel servers

Hyper-threading, which can help boost performance of some applications by 20 percent or more, debuts in the company's new server.

Dell Computer introduced two new servers Tuesday that bring higher-end features to the lower-end segment of the market.

The company's new two-processor systems are far less powerful than servers containing anywhere from four to 72 processors, but the new computers share some similar capabilities. One of the new systems, for instance, comes with Intel chips that feature hyper-threading, a new technology that uses the chip's internal computing elements more efficiently. Hyper-threading can boost performance on certain applications by 20 percent or more.

Intel will officially launch its chip, the "Prestonia" version of the Xeon processor, at the Intel Developer Forum next week.

Higher-end Intel servers such as IBM's Summit have been improving gradually, with better thermal engineering and drives that can be switched without shutting the system down, but many features have been reserved for expensive multiprocessor systems. Lower-end machines didn't stray as far from their roots as ordinary desktop computers.

The more expensive of Dell's new models is the PowerEdge 4600, an early arrival in a wave of servers that will employ the Prestonia. The 4600 also uses Grand Champion HE from Broadcom subsidiary ServerWorks. The chip will bring to the mainstream market the long-awaited PCI-X system for plugging in high-speed network cards and other devices.

Intel will highlight the 4600 at its developer show next week, said Russ Ray, product marketing manager for Dell's server line. "In our estimation, it'll be the only product shipping at that time" with the Prestonia processor, he added. "We expect a good two- to three-month competitive advantage."

The Prestonia version of Xeon is the first arrival of the Pentium 4 processor technology into the server chip line. Until now, Xeons for servers have been based around the design for the Pentium III. Intel also is preparing a more expensive version, code-named Foster MP, that can be used in four-processor servers.

The second of Dell's new system, the thin, rack-mountable PowerEdge 1650, just uses Pentium III chips, but it squeezes them into an enclosure about the size of a pizza box. It improves over its predecessor, the 1550, by adding faster processors, a faster memory subsystem, power supplies and fans that can be replaced without having to shut down the system. It will also offer a management card option--an important feature for rack-mounted servers that often are administered from a central console.

These "hot-plug" fans and power supplies are aimed at demanding customers that want better assurances that computing services won't be interrupted by hardware failures or other problems.

The 1650 has a starting price of $1,699, a typical price of $5,964, and a high-end price $13,958. The 4600 starts at $3,499, with a mid-range model costing $8,716 and a high-end machine costing $23,168.

Dell is locked in a struggle with No. 1 Compaq Computer to gain top placement in the Intel server market. IBM is concentrating on bringing higher-end features to Intel servers, while Hewlett-Packard is struggling with its Intel server business.

These competitors, however, also have higher-end Unix server lines that can meet customer needs left unmet by today's Intel servers.