Intel 'Dunnington' Processor Offers 6 Cores for High-End Systems

Intel's Dunnington processors, now called the Intel Xeon Processor 7400 series, are designed for high-end server systems that support database applications and virtualization. Intel is planning to offer a combination of six- and four-core processors for the high end of the server system market and these Xeon processors will fill out the company's 45-nanometer chip portfolio. AMD is expected to counter these Xeon processors later in 2008 with its own 45-nm Opteron processors.

Intel is rounding out its line of 45-nanometer "Penryn" microprocessors with the official release of its Xeon 7400 series processors-formerly code-named Dunnington-for multiprocessor server systems on Sept. 15.

At an event Monday, Intel unveiled seven different Xeon 7400 series processors that will have a combination of either six or four processing cores. These chips range from a six-core chip running at 2.66GHz with a 130-watt thermal envelope to a low-volt, four-core chip that runs at 50 watts. The majority of 7400 series processors will work in the 90-watt range with clock speeds from 2.4GHz to 2.13GHz.

The prices for these 7400 series Xeon processors will vary from $856 to $2,729 when the chips are officially launched today. Those prices reflect 1,000 processor unit shipments.

With the release of the Xeon 7400 series, Intel is shifting its focus away from one- and two-socket systems back to the MP (multiprocessor) space, where the unit volume is much smaller, but where the margins on the hardware and chips are much higher. It's also a market where Intel is expected to compete closely with Advanced Micro Devices and its Opteron processors, which have had an advantage when it comes to supporting systems that handle large workloads and virtualization.

Intel also believes that these six- and four-core Xeon processors will compete against the likes of IBM's Power processors, especially when it comes to handing database workloads such as SAP.

AMD plans to compete against both Dunnington and the upcoming "Nehalem" microarchitecture-based processors with a 45-nm Opteron processor called Shanghai, which is scheduled for release by the early fourth quarter. This means that vendors could start shipping systems by late December.

However, Intel is beginning to eliminate some of the advantages AMD enjoyed in the MP space with the Xeon 7400 series. One of the more significant improvements with Dunnington is that Intel will place all six processing cores on the same piece of silicon, which is different from the older quad-core Xeons that were created by tying two dual-core silicon packages together. AMD used this "native" quad-core design with the Opteron processors that were released in 2007.

John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said he believes that Intel's ability to place all six cores on one piece of silicon is a significant step forward for the company as it looks to compete against AMD in the MP server market.

"These types of chips are very much aimed at the high end of the server market where Intel has been relatively weak, and they have had a significant challenge from AMD in that space," Spooner said. "AMD is still doing well in that space and Intel wants to get a larger share of the server space. These chips also help bridge the gap between now and when Nehalem arrives on the market and is fully deployed ... Server makers have to support their customers and this one way to do that and bridge the gap for them."

In the Dunnington architecture, Intel has also allowed each pair of processing cores to share 3MB of Level 2 cache. The chips will also have a shared L3 cache that ranges from 8MB on the low end to 16MB on the high end. In database use and with virtual machines, this allows for data execution to happen closer to the processing cores.

The Intel Xeon 7400 series processors are also compatible with systems based on the older 7300 series processors and 7300 chip sets that Intel released in 2007, and users can plug the new chips into the same sockets and use a BIOS patch to upgrade the system.

Intel is stressing the Xeon 7400 series' ability to handle virtualization workloads, and it should come as no surprise that the company scheduled the release of Dunnington to coincide with the VMworld conference in Las Vegas, which starts Sept. 16. Intel has includes several virtualization improvements with the new chip, including a technology called Flex Migration, which makes it easier to move virtual machines in a pool of servers that are based on different Intel chips, including systems that use the older 7300 series and systems that will use the upcoming Nehalem microarchitecture. There is also Intel VTD, which allows for virtualization of the I/O.

The Intel Xeon 7400 series also represents one of the last times Intel will create a chip using traditional FSB (front side bus) architecture. The Nehalem chips will eliminate the FSB in favor of an integrated memory controller, which AMD has used to success with Opteron. (In a video posted on YouTube, an AMD executive touts Opteron's continued superiority handling virtualization and database workloads.)

All the major OEMs-Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and IBM-are planning to bring new systems into the market that use the Xeon 7400 series processors. IBM is also planning to bring out an eight-socket system called the System x3950 M2, which uses IBM's own chip set instead of the Intel one.

A host of smaller vendors, including Unisys, are also planning to offer Dunnington-based systems. On Sept. 15, Unisys will detail its ES7000 Model 7600R server, a system that can scale up to 16 sockets and support 96 processing cores.

Colin Lacey, vice president of Systems and Storage Systems at Unisys, said the Xeon 7400 series chip will carry the MP server space through while vendors wait to test and validate the new chips based on the Nehalem architecture. There are some significant advantages with Dunnington that were not previously available, he said, especially related to virtualization and high availability.

"The key [advantage] here clearly [is] the ability to scale processor cores, and Intel has done a lot of work around [that] to get us the amount of compute power that we need per socket," Lacey told eWEEK. "They are also working hard to balance that with core frequency and cache size ... it gives us a powerful platform for database, business continuity and virtualization. We think that Microsoft and VMware are going to be coming out with virtualization products that will really take advantage of this multicore design that we can offer out customers."