New Intel, AMD Platforms Change State of x86 Computing

Intel's new four- to eight-core Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" platform is bringing x86 computing into the mission-critical space normally reserved for RISC and mainframe systems, analysts and customers said. At the same time, AMD's eight- to 12-core Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" chips will give customers more options in the two-socket space and an easier migration path to four-socket servers.

In the space of less than 48 hours, Intel and Advanced Micro Devices dramatically altered how the industry views x86 computing, offered high-end customers significant options going forward and gave OEMs powerful new computing platforms on which to innovate.

At the same time, the two chip makers continued down separate paths that to some degree will increasingly diverge from each other.

With the rollout of their four- to eight-core Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processors March 30, Intel officials are looking to drive their high-end multiprocessors server chips into the stratosphere normally reserved for RISC-bases systems and mainframes.

For their part, AMD officials are still making the mainstream computing space the key target of their Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" processors, but are offering businesses easier and less expensive paths to migrate some of their workloads from two-socket up to four-socket servers.

To see the new chips and some of the servers running them, click here.

During the launches of the new platforms, officials, partners and customers for both companies talked about the dramatic jump in performance, memory bandwidth and capacity, and energy efficiency with the new chips, all of which are crucial for businesses that are increasingly virtualizing their IT resources and moving rapidly toward cloud computing.

Tim Mueller, CIO for DuPont's central R&D organization, said during a launch event in Boston that with Intel's new processors, his group can do with a single four-socket system what in the past had to be done by clusters of computers. It also will enable DuPont to more quickly adopt a private cloud computing environment, where everything from data management to resource provisioning will be easier and faster.

"What Intel's done here will change forever how we do computing at DuPont," Mueller said to a standing-room audience at the Lenox Hotel.

Intel's offerings with the new Xeon 7500 platform are significant, officials said. The chips can run in servers with two to 256 sockets, offer three times the performance of the previous Xeon 7400 series and up to a terabyte of memory capacity.

In addition, Intel has added 20 new reliability features, many of which until now were usually found only on high-end RISC or mainframe systems. As for consolidation, businesses can take the workloads from 20 four-socket systems running single-core Xeon MP chips and put them onto one four-socket Xeon 7500-based system.

"[Intel officials] are now positioning around mission-critical, and the targeted workloads include virtualization, database [and] business apps including workloads migrating from Unix/RISC to Linux or Windows on x86," IDC analyst Matt Eastwood said in an e-mail sent to eWEEK.

Combined with the Xeon 5600 "Westmere EP" chips introduced two weeks ago for two-socket servers, which target some HPC (high-performance computing) workloads, Intel is aggressively pushing the Xeon family up the server stack, Eastwood said.

"So all in all, this is a big-iron migration path," he said. "This won't happen overnight, but it will happen and Intel is giving the OEMs plenty of places to innovate."

It could also impact Intel's Itanium business, according to Eastwood. During the Xeon 7500 launch, Intel officials said there was room for both the high-end Xeon and Itanium platforms, but the IDC analyst said Itanium will continue to be marginalized.

"Itanium is relegated to implementations with a high degree of OS interdependency (non-Windows and Linux)," he said.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said that there historically has been a split between x86 and the Unix and mainframes, usually around RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features. However, over the past decade, that has changed somewhat, with much of HPC and supercomputing moving to x86, King said in a March 31 report. Much of that is due to what OEMs have done with their systems, and to virtualization technology from the likes of VMware and Microsoft, he said.

But Intel deserves a lot the credit as well, and the Xeon 7500 is reflective of the chip maker's innovative capabilities.

"The Xeon 7500's 3X performance boost, energy-efficiency, capacious memory and I/O features and new enterprise-class reliability features are must-haves for x86-based server customers," King wrote. "In addition, those features offer server vendors a huge, highly flexible tool chest to build highly innovative x86-based systems."

That's already begun, he said, pointing to IBM's rollout of its high-end eX5 servers earlier in March.