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Intel Xeon 5600 x86 chips can swap into 5500s

New "Westmere" processor can swap into current Intel Xeon 5500s, a benefit for end users who bought Nehalem servers last year.

Intel's new Westmere six-core, 32-nanometer Xeon 5600 processor can be swapped into Xeon 5500-based Nehalem systems that came out last year, providing end users an easier way to boost server performance without actually buying new servers.

"The fact that Westmere is made to plug into previous-generation Xeon servers and [is] compatible with motherboards that are about a year old is important," said Charles King, analyst for Pund-IT. "If someone is using an important business application, doing a swap out with Westmere could give them an extra boost without having to invest in an entirely new system."

If someone is using an important business application, doing a swap out with Westmere could give them an extra boost without having to invest in an entirely new system.
Charles King,

But while that chip swap out sounds great in theory, some end users wonder how easy it will really be.

Such is the case with Daniel Gruner, CTO of Canadian high-performance computing network SciNet. SciNet runs a 4,000-node Nehalem-based IBM iDataPlex using two-socket servers and quad-core Xeon 5500 chips and 2 GB of RAM.

"The new chips, while interesting, are not in our roadmap," Gruner said. "Mostly because we don't have the resources to upgrade, but also because we aren't sure of the implications toward the balance in our system."

Gruner said that adding an extra two chip cores per node would put I/O demands on SciNet's GigE network interconnect that he's not sure it could handle. He also said SciNet would have to do benchmarking to see how memory bandwidth would be affected, because adding more cores would require adding more memory per node.

"Undoubtedly there are some codes that could greatly benefit from the upgrade, and we might consider it if the resources were available," he said.

The new processor is a step up from the Xeon 5500 chips Intel unveiled last year. It has potentially more cores and a smaller footprint (32 nm instead of 45 nm) and is designed for one- and two-socket servers. Pund-IT's King said the Westmere chip is part of the normal evolution of the Xeon processor family. It's not anything particularly revolutionary, but it does provide expected performance increases.

The product line includes 12 processors ranging from the 40-watt, 1.86 GHz L5609 with four cores and 12 MB of L3 cache to the 130-watt, 3.6 GHz X5680 with six cores and 12 MB of L3 cache. By comparison, the fastest 5500 chip is the X5570, running at 2.93 GHz with four cores and 8 MB of L3 cache (though it only consumes 95 watts).

It clearly is the month for chip announcements. In addition to Westmere, Intel plans announcing announce its eight-core Nehalem EX processors by the end of March. That chip family targets larger, four-socket machines. And processor rival AMD plans to announce a new Opteron chip with up to 12 cores.

In concert with Intel's announcement, major server vendors announced new machines featuring the Westmere chip. Hewlett-Packard Co. unveiled 16 new servers based on the Xeon 5600, while Dell announced nine and IBM five. Prices for the new HP ProLiant G6 servers will start at $1,345, according to an HP executive.

Fujitsu introduced a new server-rack design starting with the Intel Xeon 5600. The design includes 38 server "trays" or "nodes" that fit into Fujitsu's own proprietary 42U rack, which takes in cool air in the front but exhausts hot air out the top. The back is sealed: Fujitsu says racks can now sit back-to-back and will not need hot aisles for exhaust air. The company will sell that product as a fully packaged rack of servers starting at $89,000.

According to IDC, the x86 server market is starting to show rebound in the economy, with revenue increasing 12.6% in the fourth quarter of 2009 compared with the previous year. HP is the leader in x86 server revenue, followed by Dell and IBM.

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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