Intel Xeon 7500 Takes Aim at IBM Power, Oracle SPARC

In a meeting with reporters, an Intel executive reiterated that with the new Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" chips, Intel is taking aim at the high-end workloads that traditionally have run on RISC-based platforms, such as IBM Power and Oracle SPARC. At the same time, the Intel executive said there is room at the top for both Xeon and Intel's high-end Itanium chips.

NEW YORK-The way Shannon Poulin sees it, about 95 percent of the servers shipped every year are x86 systems powered by chips from Intel or Advanced Micro Devices.

The other 5 percent, however, make up about 40 percent of worldwide server revenue.

"That's a small number of units for a large part of the revenue," Poulin, Xeon platform director at Intel, said during a meeting with reporters here April 6. "We're trying to bring volume economics to that space."

Intel is doing so with its newly released Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processors, four- to eight-core chips that Intel officials say give enterprises a legitimate x86 alternative for workloads that traditionally have run on RISC (IBM's Power and Sun Microsystems'-now Oracle's-SPARC) platforms and mainframes.

Intel officials began the drumbeat last year when discussing Nehalem EX, and have continued it since the platform launched March 30.

During the meeting with reporters, Poulin touted the numbers-the three times performance improvement over the previous generation, the 20-to-1 consolidation ratio, the scalability from two- to 256-socket systems, the four times the memory capacity-and the wide market potential for Xeon 7500.

The chip platform is primarily aimed at servers with four or more sockets, and Poulin listed almost a dozen OEMs-including Hewlett-Packard, Oracle, Cray, IBM, NEC, SGI and Bull-that are looking to release eight-socket systems. At the same time, there are workloads that run on two-socket systems that need a lot of memory capacity that can run the Nehalem EX chips, he said.

Poulin also pointed to the more than 20 new RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features that previously had only been found in high-end RISC and mainframe platforms, he said. These aim to reduce downtime, protect the data and increase availability of the systems.

"A lot of these are things that have been in Itanium [Intel's high-end non-x86 processor], things that have been in RISC-based products, or are things we didn't have in Xeon before," he said.

Throughout the meeting, Poulin was asked about the Xeon 7500's impact on Itanium, the high-end chip that runs primarily on HP's largest systems, including Integrity, OpenVMS and NonStop. Those systems run similar workloads as to IBM's Power and Oracle's SPARC.

As have other Intel officials, Poulin said there is room at the top for both architectures, though acknowledging that should Xeon steal away any business of Itanium, it would still all be good for Intel.

"We're not going to hold back Xeon in any way," Poulin said. "We're going to put as much as we can into both of those products."

He also pointed out that Intel already has plans for the next two generations of Itanium, with platforms code-named "Poulson" and "Kittson."

Itanium's future has continued to be questioned as the performance and capabilities of x86 chips from both Intel and AMD have advanced. Those questions were raised again earlier this month, when Microsoft officials said they were going to end Itanium support in future versions of their server software.

The key reason cited was the increased capabilities of the chips from Intel and AMD, which the day before the Xeon 7500 chips, released its eight- to 12-core Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" processors.

Poulin downplayed Microsoft's move, pointing out that only about 5 percent of Itanium's business came from Windows servers. The bulk of it comes from HP-UX systems, he said.

At least one analyst agreed. In a report issued April 7, Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, noted the impressive performance of the new Intel and AMD chips. However, King also pointed out that the market for RISC and Itanium systems was about $12 billion in 2009, and that didn't include the market for IBM's System z mainframes.

"No matter how dramatic Microsoft's move might have seemed, its exit is not likely to significantly impact the company's revenues or overall Itanium platform sales," King wrote, noting that HP's investment in Itanium makes it unlikely that the OEM will alter its plans.

Not everyone sees a long future for Itanium. In a report in February, Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Associates, said he sees the server market consolidating around three platforms-Xeon, Power and IBM's mainframes.

"Intel's enhancements to Xeon processors now put that chip in competition with its own Itanium technologies," Clabby said. "We believe this is marginalizing Itanium, leading buyers to see the light and start moving off of the platform."