Intel Elevates Its Mainstream x86 Processors into HPC Space

By Chris Preimesberger  |  Posted 2010-03-30

Intel Elevates Its Mainstream x86 Processors into HPC Space

SAN FRANCISCO-When it launched its new Xeon 7500 Nehalem EX server processors here at the swanky Bentley Reserve Conference Center March 30, Intel indicated that it is going both upstream and mainstream at the same time.

Upsteam as in moving its mainline x86 processor into waters yet uncharted-the high-performance computing space-and mainstream, as in providing an industrial-strength processing base for future standard enterprise IT systems.

Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the Intel architecture group and general manager of its data center group, told a standing-room-only conference that the new quad-core, six-core and eight-core Xeon 7500 chips represent "the most significant leap in performance, scalability and reliability ever seen from Intel," and he wasn't kidding.

"This is huge. This is Intel taking its x86 architecture up into the mainframe space," Rob Enderle, principal of The Enderle Group, told eWEEK.

"They've looked at the competition and had positioned Itanium against the opportunity, but now they're taking their mainstream technology and putting it up there. This really takes their volume, high-value part and moves it up there where their RISC competitor was.

"This is the equivalent of taking a Chevy and starting to shoot at Rolls Royces."

It will take awhile for these powerful new chips to work their way into mainstream use in the data center, Enderle said.

"Movement in this space is measured in decades," Enderle said. "These large HPC machines tend to migrate very slowly. Remember, the mainframe was 'killed off' in the 1980s, but it's doing just fine three decades later. This is an environment that moves very, very slowly.

"This is the start of a move. I imagine we'll be talking about this move one or two decades from now."

In the big picture, this doesn't bode well for Intel's HPC-specific Itanium processor line in the future.

Asked directly about Intel's plans for Itanium, Skaugen skirted around the issue a bit, but the word "migrate" did come forth at one point.

"These are two distinctly different architectures," Skaugen said. "There is room for them at this time. That said, 90 percent of our Itanium business is mainframe and HP/UX-based. Intel expects to migrate a lot of those machines to Xeon over time, but for now, it [Itanium] is still a very good business for us."

The Nehalem EX series comprises 11 new Xeon server and storage array processors. Pricing will range from a high of $3,692 for the eight-core, 2.26GHz Xeon X7560 designed for expandable systems of up to eight sockets and beyond to $744 for the quad-core, 1.73GHz Xeon XE6510, which is aimed specifically at dual-processor systems.

Intel also showed some midrange-type Xeon 7500s with four, six and eight cores. Some of them come with Intel's proprietary Turbo Boost and some without; all of them are much cooler-running and energy efficient, fitting into Intel's standard thermal envelope of 95 to 130 watts for multisocket processors.

RAM over clock speeds

Clay Ryder, president and principal analyst with Sageza Group, told eWEEK that the increased amount of RAM these new chips can access is probably more important than improved clock speeds for most enterprises.

"Most companies are running into an issue now that when they go to virtualize their servers to put more people on one machine, it's not that they are running out of compute horsepower, but rather available RAM," Ryder said. "One of the easy ways to address this is to use a system with more RAM on it, so they can put more virtual images on it, and support more and more people.

"The new Xeons have more memory bandwidth and can ultimately support more RAM on the server, which means more virtual servers, more users on a single machine."

There's always a need for speed, "but you don't need to go 300 mph down the Bayshore Freeway," Ryder said. "However, you do need to get everything into the car you're driving. That's the challenge that people are seeing with virtualization.

"When you start bringing dozens or hundreds of people onto a system, that's very different than bringing three or four."

At the launch event, EMC, IBM, Dell, Oracle Sun, NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, VMware, Cray, SGI and several other companies showed new hardware and software optimized for the new chips.

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What Dell is doing with the Xeon 7500s

Dell is rolling out three new PowerEdge servers based on Intel's Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processor. The move comes a day after Dell unveiled another PowerEdge system that is running on Advanced Micro Devices' new eight- to 12-core Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" processor.
The Dell servers include two rack-optimized systems, the 2U (3.5-inch) PowerEdge R810 and the 4U (7-inch) R910. Both servers are four-socket systems, which means they each can offer up to 32 processing cores.
The third system is the four-socket M910 blade server. Dell's M1000e enclosure can fit up to eight M910s, according to Bryan Payne, senior manager for PowerEdge product planning at Dell.
With the two rack systems, Dell is offering two new features aimed at giving businesses greater flexibility around memory and better resiliency in their virtualized environments, Payne said. Dell's Flex Memory Bridge lets IT administrators decide whether to ramp up the memory capacity on the server or the processing power.

They can either populate all four sockets with Intel's processors, or use two sockets for the CPUs and put Dell's Flex Memory Bridges into the other two sockets, which will add up to another half-terabyte of memory.
"It will allow you to support more virtual machines on a single system," Payne said in an interview.
Dell's Fail Safe Virtualization feature offers greater failover protection in virtualized environments by offering an embedded hypervisors in the servers, he said.
The Fail Safe Virtualization feature is available in both the new Intel servers and the R815 server running on the new AMD Opterons, Payne said. However, the Flex Memory Bridge technology was designed in collaboration with Intel, and is available only on the Intel-based systems.
"The Flex Memory Bridge is tied into Intel's architecture," he said.
Payne touted the R910's ability to offer up to 1TB of memory and its expanded I/O capabilities, including the option of 10GbE. He said the system offers a 219 percent improve in performance over the curretn PowerEdge R900 -- "The raw performance is increasing dramatically" -- and 200 percent gains in energy efficiency.

Senior Editor Jeff Burt contributed to this story.

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