Intel Aims Nehalem EX at RISC Market

Intel will start production of its high-end Nehalem EX processor by the end of this year, with the goal to have them in systems in early 2010. In a preview of the eight-core chip, Intel officials said that the combination of the upcoming Xeon MP processor and Itanium will put pressure on RISC vendors like IBM and Sun, and give enterprises and HPC customers lower-cost alternatives. They also said they don't see Nehalem EX as a threat to Itanium, though they admitted they will push Xeon MP as far as possible. The preview came as rival AMD prepares to release its six-core "Istanbul" Opteron chip.

Intel is on track to start production of its eight-core Nehalem EX processors starting in the second half of the year, and is taking aim at the high end of the server market.

Intel officials previewed the upcoming chip May 26, saying that systems coming out with the processor in the first part of 2010 will give enterprises an option to incumbent RISC architectures.

"Customers are still looking to Intel [to help them] move off RISC," Boyd Davis, general manager of Intel's server platforms marketing group, said in a conference call with analysts and journalists.

Davis was less clear about the impact the Nehalem EX chip will have on the chip maker's own Itanium processor line. Intel announced May 21 that it was delaying the next version of Itanium-dubbed "Tukwila"-until early next year. He said he didn't expect the new high-end processor to cannibalize Itanium, but added that Intel is "going to keep pushing Xeon as far as it will go."

The new Xeon chip, for servers with four or more sockets, will offer up to eight cores per processor, up to 16 threads per chip through Intel's Hyper-Threading technology and 24MB of share cache. It will replace the six-core Xeon 7400 series, which had been code-named Dunnington.

Like its Nehalem EP counterpart-now called Xeon 5500 Series, for systems with two sockets-the new chip will feature an integrated memory controller, QuickPath Interconnect for chip-to-chip communication for higher bandwidth, and Turbo Boost, which enables IT administrators to dynamically increase or lower the clock speed of individual cores depending on utilization and demand.

In addition, the Nehalem EX chip-which will hold 2.3 billion transistors-will have up to nine times the memory bandwidth of the current high-end Xeon 7400 chips, and greater memory capacity through support for up to 16 memory slots per socket.

Other features will include Machine Check Recovery, which is found in Itanium and essentially can detect and correct errors within the CPU, memory or interconnect without having to bring the system down. This is particularly important in virtualized environments, where a single physical system can have many virtual machines running atop it, Davis said. Having to shut down a machine to find and fix an error means having to migrate all those VMs.

With MC Recovery, the error can be isolated without having to move all the VMs.

"It's a real beast of a processor," Davis said.

He also pointed to the chip's support for live migration of VMs through the company's VT FlexMigration Assist capabilities, which support VMware's ESX and vSphere offerings.

He said the combination of Nehalem EX and Itanium will give RISC customers-who use such platforms as IBM's Power/AIX and Sun Microsystems' SPARC/Solaris-a less expensive and more efficient option. Davis said he also expects that it will enable Intel technology to muscle its way deeper into the HPC (high-performance computing) space.

"That will be a new area for this particular product family to make some gains in," he said.

OEMs already are viewing the next chip as a scale-up platform, with 15 eight-socket designs from eight manufacturers already in the works, he said.

The high-end of the server market accounts for only about 6 percent of shipments, but a greater share of revenue, Davis said.

"The reality for the high end of [the] Xeon server market is really about capacity and scale," which the new processor addresses, he said.

Intel officials have been encouraged by the rate of adoption of the Xeon 5500 Series, which was introduced March 30, and which will account for more than half of all Xeon dual-socket shipments by August.

The preview comes as rival Advanced Micro Devices readies its six-core "Istanbul" Opteron processor for launch. That chip is due in June, but could come as early as this week.

During the briefing, Alex Yost, vice president and business line executive for IBM's System x and BladeCenter business, talked about the company's next generation of its X-Architecture and upcoming x3850 M2 and x3950 M2 four-socket servers, all of which will be based in large part on Nehalem EX.

Yost said the combined capabilities of the Intel technology and IBM X-Architecture will help enterprises that are strapped by space and power limitations in their data centers and the increasing complexity of managing these environments.