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Intel shrinks Xeon with new Penryn 45-nanometer processor

Intel's latest-generation Xeon is a 45-nanometer processor, packing more than 400 billion transistors on the platform.

Intel Corp. unveiled a new family of Xeon dual- and quad-core processors and platforms today that are designed to improve performance, energy efficiency and parallel processing for high-performance computing (HPC) applications .

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Intel's new Xeon processor series 5400 (formerly code-named Harpertown) and the 5400 chipset (formerly code-named Seaburg) is the first processor based on the Penryn 45-nanometer hi-k metal gate silicon technology, which nearly doubles the density of transistors over the previous 65-nanometer (nm) technology and reduces power leaks.

Intel has pushed the Xeon processor for use in small-compute clusters of less than 128 nodes, said Richard Dracott, general manager for Intel HPC inititatives. .

We couldn't continue to scale in the normal way with the materials we were using.
Kaizad Mistry,
program manager for 45-nanometer productsIntel Corp.

"The HPC segment of the server market is growing because industries like financial services, modeling of technologies, fluid dynamics, and oil and gas are using more cost-effective, smaller clusters," Dracott said. "We see HPC becoming a significant piece of the server segment, so we are putting increased effort into the HPC space."

If the trends identified by research from IDC's HPC User Forum continue, focusing on the HPC space may bode well for Intel. In 2006 the HPC market hit an all-time high of $10 billion, growing an average 20.9% per year in server factory revenue over the past four years.

"[Intel's 5400 Xeon processors] will fit well into the cluster portion of the HPC market, which is growing very fast," said Earl Joseph, an IDC research vice president and the executive director of the HPC User Forum.

Tiny platform, big performance
Intel has shrunk the transistor circuitry from 65 nm to 45 nm, increasing the amount of L2, or Level 2, cache by 50% on the new quad-core Xeon processor. As a result, the performance of most HPC applications -- such as scientific modeling and financial services applications -- can increase up to 30% over the performance of previous-generation Xeons.

According to Kaizad Mistry, Intel's 45-nm program manager, Intel had to abandon silicon materials that traditionally used to get down to 45 nm – which holds over 400 billion transistors on a 1-centimeter platform.

"We couldn't continue to scale in the normal way with the materials we were using," Mistry said in a podcast. "There would be way too much leakage current or we wouldn't get the performance benefit we expect from scaling. The change to the hi-k metal gate allows us to continue to scale the transistor to 45 nm and beyond and continue to reap the benefit of Moore's Law."

The new Intel Xeon 5400 chipset has been enhanced to increase performance with faster dual front-side bus (FSB) speeds of up to 1,600 MHz, a proportionally larger 24-MB snoop filter to enable faster processing of compute-intensive workflows. The Intel Xeon 5400 chipset is also the first to adopt PCI Express Gen2 interconnect technology. With twice the bandwidth of previous-generation PCI Express, clustered computers can now take full advantage of the performance offered by quad-data-rate InfiniBand.

The 5400 processors are pin-compatible with previous-generation 5300 and 5100 Xeons, so with a bios update users can drop the new Xeon processor in to replace older processors. But you won't get the performance boost that comes with the 5400 chipset with this type of replacement, an Intel spokesperson said.

The new quad-core Intel Xeon processor 5400 series also features several virtualization enhancements, including Intel VT FlexMigration and Intel Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O (VT-d). Intel VT FlexMigration enables live migration of virtual machines between servers running different processor families; including Xeon 5100, 5300 and 7300 series to the new quad-core 5400-based servers.

Intel VT-d allows IT managers to directly assign virtual machines to I/O devices such as network adapters, graphics cards, video encoders and high-performance accelerators.

The 45-nanometer processors also offer standby power option, so if a core on the quad-core or dual-core processors is not in use, the core throttles down to preserve power, Dracott said.

Quad-core Opteron processors from competitor Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) quad-core were introduced with the power-saving feature – Dual Dynamic Power Management - as well.

But AMD is the tortoise in the processor race, saying that it will begin production of its first 45-nm products in the first half of 2008. AMD expects its 45-nm products to be available in the market by the second half of 2008, according to an AMD spokesperson.

"Our experience and research shows that end users considering a system purchase don't ask about the transistor size in the processor; instead they focus on the overall computing experience, total value [i.e., cost verus benefit], performance and energy efficiency," the spokesperson said.

Regardless, all of the major supercomputer makers and software vendors now support the new line of Intel Xeon processors.

Pricing of these new processors depends on the model, speed, features and quantity ordered, though price ranges from $177 to $1,279 in quantities of 1,000. Depending on the model, the new processors will available between today and 45 days from now.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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