Reading Between Nehalem Lines

After the splashy launch of Intel's new chip architecture, many questions remain.

Now that "Nehalem" is no longer under Intel's hat, after its March 30 launch, there are a couple of housekeeping issues to take care of.

First of all, what's up with Intel's Itanium platform?

The thorny question of Itanium-based servers came up at the Nehalem launch, held at Intel headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif. Intel's Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise Group, said Nehalem was the most important processor since the Pentium Pro, which was announced nearly 10 years ago.

Gelsinger also said that he expects not to make a similar announcement for another 10 years. Gelsinger did mention a couple of upcoming milestones for the Itanium platform, but it was clear that the focus now and for the foreseeable future is on Nehalem-based systems development.

Speaking of the near future, much of Nehalem's whiz-bang power efficiency, compute productivity and virtual machine workload migration was made possible using VMware's ESX 4.0, which is still in beta.

To keep this in perspective, it's not likely that IT managers will even begin to buy Xeon 5500-based systems in bulk until well after the general release of ESX 4.0. However, as I pointed out in my technical analysis of server virtualization on Xeon 5500 series CPUs, VMware will present the lowest-common-dominator processor in a VMware VMotion cluster. So, when you're ready to take advantage of Nehalem's Turbo mode, simultaneous multithreading and double the addressable RAM (over previous generations), IT managers will need to segregate Xeon 5500 series systems.

The funny thing about hardware is that it is physical. To take advantage of the new performance-enhancing features, actual new hardware will need to be purchased and installed.

IT managers who want to implement Xeon 5500 series-based systems will need to take a close look at lease expiration and full depreciation dates of existing equipment. Otherwise, all the money saved in reducing utility costs and increasing performance could easily be lost. Fully populating a server with the 144GB of RAM that Intel currently puts forward as the recommended maximum is a very large capital cost compared with tricking out a Xeon 5400 series-based system.

As with any data center server purchase, the devil is in the details. In the case of the Xeon 5500 series, not all SKUs will come with simultaneous multithreading, a feature that will be advantageous to virtualized applications. And how much effort will be required to retrofit applications to take advantage of simultaneous multithreading?

In a couple of years, most of these housekeeping details will be tidied up, but for those IT managers who are making strategic decisions today, remember that behind all this chip innovation is the next phase of data center implementation and application development.