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Intel Nehalem chips make entrance amid server market slump

Intel's next-generation Xeon processor, Nehalem, makes its entrance, but many IT pros won't upgrade until the chip matures and the economy improves.

Intel's next-generation Xeon processor, code-named Nehalem, is officially here, but many IT pros won't upgrade until the chip matures and the economy improves.

For more on Intel processors:
Intel set to release Nehalem Xeon processor
Intel launches four-socket Xeon 7300 quad-core processor

In recent weeks, vendors have lined up to launch servers based on Intel Corp.'s Xeon 5500 processor. New products include Cisco Systems Inc.'s Unified Computing System's blade servers, Dell PowerEdge and M-series blade servers, IBM System x servers, and HP ProLiant systems -- all boasting improved performance and power efficiency.

One of the most significant enhancements to the new Xeon is the integration of a memory controller into a CPU to replace the front-side bus, which is the culprit behind traffic bottlenecks. Another feature exciting Intel users is the QuickPath Interconnect (QPI), which gives Nehalem access to 2.4 times more bandwidth than previously. This capability is important for virtual environments, where bottleneck issues are common.

Users cautiously optimistic
While Intel users laud Nehalem's features, especially QPI and integrated memory controllers, they are also hesitant. "It will be Intel's first chips and chipsets with QPI, and memory controllers on the [chip], it's a big shift, they could easily have some teething issues," as one system administrator noted on a popular IT community message board.

I am very excited about Nehalem, but it's not always fun to be first in line for the 'guinea pig' position.
An Intel user,

Another Intel user echoed the sentiment. "I am very excited about Nehalem, but it's not always fun to be first in line for the 'guinea pig' position." He uses the current Intel Harpertown architecture and plans to stay with it until Nehalem has been thoroughly tested.

Given tighter IT budgets, end users are also prudent about hardware spending. One Canadian system administrator said, "I think you'll see a slower uptake on [Nehalem] until the requisite updates are released, and people start building or replacing their clusters," he said. "Ultimately we lack the budget and even the need for additional performance for most of our apps. … With the economy in the toilet, now isn't the best time to be releasing chips."

Illuminata Inc. analyst Gordon Haff said hesitation about a new platform is common, and that is a bigger hurdle, in fact, than the tough economy.

"Doubtless the overall level of IT spending is down, so in that sense, uptake probably won't be as quick as [it would be] otherwise. However, except in rare cases [or] in high performance computing, companies don't typically upgrade N-1 generation servers no matter how good a new processor is," Haff said. "Rather they switch new server purchases, some of which may replace older systems, to the newer and better stuff."

That said, some say that the chip offers enough performance and efficiency improvements to make it a worthy investment. "Given the better bang for the buck and the watt that Nehalem offers, I don't see why companies would be slower to switch over. … In fact, you could argue that they should be even quicker to switch given that there can be financial benefits to doing so."

One beta user impressed
Jeremy Sherwood, an engineer at the Portland, Ore.-based managed hosting company Opus:Interactive, said the increased performance and efficiency of Nehalem makes the chip a smart investment.

Sherwood is beta testing the new chips in HP's ProLiant G6 servers, and is therefore using the chip for free. Compared with the previous-generation, dual-socket quad-core Xeon chips he uses in production, the new dual-socket quad-core Nehalem processors "offer almost double the performance at the same power as low-voltage versions of previous-generation Xeon chips," he said.

Sherwood runs VMware-based VMs with e-commerce websites, some large back-end databases and simulated concurrent user connections alongside the previous-generation Xeon processors. He also runs Nehalem alongside low-voltage versions of the previous-generation Xeon chips and checks power consumption levels on the chassis power distribution units, he said.

Because Nehalem includes Hyper-Threading Technology, it can run applications in parallel and offers higher processing throughput. Sherwood said Hyper-Threading is important because it gives his VMs access to more cores simultaneously than can chips without the technology.

"It's a great chip -- I run it at full tilt to see what it can handle, and the power and cooling hasn't changing, but the performance is doubling," Sherwood said. "This means we can grow our business without growing our [computing] footprint and might even be able to lower our footprint."

Intel Senior Vice President Pat Gelsinger said its performance and energy efficiency makes this 45-nanometer quad-core chip "the most important launch since Pentium Pro" in 1995."

In addition, the chip's Turbo Mode technology allows processor cores to run faster than the base operating frequency if it runs below power, current, and temperature specification limits. The chip does so by automatically detecting workloads and either shuts off unused cores or "turbos" up unused cores to accommodate heavier workloads, Gelsinger said. The Turbo function can operate at frequencies up to 3.33 GHz, depending on the processor and system configuration, according to Intel.

Nehalem frequencies peak at 2.93 GHz with DDR3 memory speeds of up to 1,333 MHz and power levels of from 60 W to 95 W. It also includes Node Manager, which enables IT to control power consumption and power supply to the chip.

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

And check out our data center blogs: Server Farming, Mainframe Propellerhead, and Data Center Facilities Pro


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