Intel Unveils High-End Xeon E7 Chips, Targets Unix Market

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2011-04-05

Intel Unveils High-End Xeon E7 Chips, Targets Unix Market

Intel is continuing its assault on Unix servers and mainframes with the release of its latest high-end Xeon processors, including chips that offer up to 10 cores.

The latest missive came April 5, when Intel officials unveiled the Xeon E7 "Westmere EX" portfolio of chips, which they said offer 40 percent more performance than the year-old Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processors and add more RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features that are more commonly found in high-end Unix and mainframe systems.

The new Xeon E7 chips will pair with Intel's Itanium platform to give enterprises two strong alternatives to RISC-based servers and mainframes offered by the likes of IBM and Oracle, which now owns Sun Microsystems' SPARC/Solaris hardware business, according to Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of Intel's Data Center Group.

"Given the economic downturn, the Unix marketplace is in ... accelerated decline," Skaugen said during a press conference announcing the new chips. The new Xeon E7 processors will only speed up that decline, he added.

The 32-nanometer Westmere EX chips-18 in all were introduced April 5-are the latest expansion of Intel's "Sandy Bridge" microarchitecture, which first was introduced in PC chips at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in January. Intel also is moving Sandy Bridge up the server chip stack, into its E3 lineup for smaller servers, E5 for midrange system and now E7 for high-end machines that target such mission-critical workloads as databases and back-office applications-typically the kinds of workloads found on RISC/Unix servers.

The E7 chips hit a number of notes that enterprises will appreciate, Skaugen said. Along with the performance jumps, the Xeons will offer consolidation and power-efficiency capabilities, such as the ability to turn off idle processor cores and support for low-voltage memory. Dual-core Xeon E7 chips will offer 18 times the performance of their Nehalem EX counterparts within the same power envelope, he said; single-core Xeon E7s, 29 times the performance.

A server powered by a Westmere EX dual-core processor will be able to replace 18 dual-core systems, which would represent a significant savings in power and space costs, he said.

Throughout the hourlong press conference, Skaugen was vocal about Intel's ability now to reach into the highest ends of the data center with both its Xeon E7 and Itanium chips and take workloads away from RISC/Unix and mainframe systems. Xeon and Itanium feature similar RAS features, and both have stable road maps that enterprises can plan around, he said. Intel will refresh Xeon annually, while Itanium will hit a two-year cadence with new chips, with the next generation, "Poulson," coming in 2012 and promising twice the performance of the current Itanium 9300 "Tukwila" processors. "Kittson" is due about two years after that.

The high-end Xeons and Itaniums essentially will "leap frog" each other in performance and features from now on, Skaugen said, adding that at this point, the determining factor for enterprises in deciding which platform to choose will be the operating systems they're running, not the performance of the chips. Itanium, which runs a different instruction set than the x86-based Xeons, can be used for such OSes as Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX Unix variant. Windows, Linux and Solaris all run on the Xeons, Skaugen said.

No Workload That Xeon Cant Handle


"There is no workload in the world today ... that Xeon can't handle," he said.

However, Itanium is losing some support from software makers. Oracle officials announced last week that it will no longer develop software for the Itanium platform, joining Microsoft and Red Hat. Analysts and rivals such as HP said the move was made in hopes of shoring up Oracle's struggling SPARC/Solaris hardware business.

Analysts said Intel's Xeon E7 portfolio is a significant step as its looks to grab more high-end workloads.

"Intel extends its performance franchise even further into what was legacy RISC/Unix territory with this announcement, and Linux and Windows workloads get a platform that improves performance significantly without requiring any system redesign, ensuring a rapid flow of product into the market," Forrester Research analyst Richard Fichera said in a blog post April 5.

In the fourth quarter 2010, both Gartner and IDC saw x86 server revenues grow more than 20 percent while revenue for Unix servers-squeezed between x86 systems and IBM's strong System z mainframe revenue growth-fell. Gartner analysts said Unix revenue dropped almost 19 percent during the quarter.

"The challenge for Unix vendors in 2011 is to limit migrations and to try to encourage new investment in these platforms," Adrian O'Connell, a research director at Gartner, said in a statement at the time.

Skaugen touted the 19 OEMs who will roll out up to 35 new and upgraded systems based on the Westmere EX chips. Not only will top-tier server makers like Dell, HP and IBM offer new servers, but also SGI, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Lenovo, Fujitsu and Cray, which has been a significant customer of Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices.

Dell refreshed three of its six four-socket PowerEdge servers, which are designed to compete for high-end workloads that often run on RISC/Unix systems, according to Brian Payne, executive director of Dell's PowerEdge server line. The three systems with the new Xeon E7 chips include the PowerEdge R910 and R810 rack servers, and M910 blade system.

In an interview with eWEEK, Payne touted the performance of the systems with the new Intel chip. He pointed to a 38 percent performance improvement in an Oracle application server and database in the R910 with a 10-core Xeon E7-4780 chip, for example.

"The CPU capabilities we're seeing in the four-socket space are impressive," Payne said.

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