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Intel Nehalem processor users content with status quo

Almost a year after the release of Intel's next-gen Xeon chip, aka Nehalem, data center pros are happy with the performance, but enthusiasm for the eight-core Nehalem EX is muted.

It has been nearly a year since Intel released its first next-generation Xeon, or Nehalem, processors and end users are so happy with the result, they're not chomping at the bit for the upcoming eight-core version.

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David Gruner, the CTO of SciNet, a high-performance computing network in Canada, considers himself a satisfied Nehalem customer. SciNet runs a 4,000-node Nehalem-based IBM iDataPlex, made up of two-socket servers with quad-core chips and 2 GB of RAM.

"We have had cases of code that were running well when optimized on the previous generation of Intel, and some of these codes are now getting two to three times the performance just because of the memory bandwidth. They're also good in terms of power consumption."

On Thursday, Intel reported that microprocessor revenue for its data center group grew 24% in its fourth quarter compared withthe previous quarter and was up 43% compared with the fourth quarter of 2008. On a conference call, Intel executives told analysts that that the Nehalem EX, an eight-core processor due in the first half of this year, will be the single biggest leap in performance for the Xeon chip family.

Gruner said that SciNet could have installed a new cluster earlier but decided to wait for Nehalem, and he is glad it did. But because the installation is complete and successful, Gruner did not seem overly excited about Nehalem EX.

"It's a hard question," he said. "Nehalem EX will have more memory channels, and the links should make for a nice, large SMP, but we would have to test it. We would have to benchmark it. Now we've just installed and we don't see when the next batch of money would come in."

"In some sense, it's better to have [fewer] power nodes but have those nodes more effectively used," he added.

Rick Vanover, the IT infrastructure manager at a large financial services organization in Columbus, Ohio, said he's thrilled with the Nehalem-based servers he runs. He wouldn't say how many he uses but said that they're HP and Dell x86 machines.

"It's a great processor, and I'm doing everything I can to get more of it," he said, adding that he has actually shied away from buying any four-socket servers because Nehalem isn't available on them yet.

"I've developed quite a fancy for the two-socket flavor simply because the incremental cost is lower," he said. "If I need to add granular levels of computer power for virtualization, I can do it in smaller increments with the two-sockets."

Like Gruner, Vanover is intrigued by the Nehalem EX. But because he is satisfied with his current servers, he's not exactly counting down the days until Nehalem EX is available.

"It could be good for anything that is one single system that needs a lot of performance," he said. "I'll be frank: I don't really need that anymore. I can usually virtualize or stack up two-socket systems if I need to."

But many IT managers are just happy with whatever x86 server is on the market, and will make any upgrade decision when their normal refresh cycle comes up.

"We do run x86 Intel servers," said Mike Rose, the IT director at Salem State College in Salem, Mass. "Whatever is on the shelf we order from IBM. [The chip] is not a deciding factor for us."

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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