Choosing Chips

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Whether your calculations tell you we're already in an economic recession or one is looming, it's never been more important for system builders and resellers to be smart about the parts and solutions they package for customers.

Don't just trust in clock speed and raw horsepower to make processor and system sales. If there's ever been a time to take a deep dive into the value gains to be found in things like scalability and power efficiency, it's right now.

Here's a look at the silicon products from top vendors that VARs say are delivering the right bang for the buck.

Quad-core server processors remain the gold standard for OEMs and system builders, particularly with virtualization practices growing in the data centers they provision. Intel's quad-core Xeons have the lion's share of the market and the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant in late March released two new low-voltage, quad-core Xeons that should be pretty popular—the L5400 series, which comes in 2.33-GHz and 2.50-GHz flavors, both of which sit in a 50W thermal envelope. And Intel says it will also ship a 40W, 3.0-GHz dual-core Xeon sometime in the second quarter.

Where to put those juicy new dual- and quad-cores? Builders, integrators and solution providers serving the SMB market might want to get to know Intel's new set of modular server building blocks, code-named Clear Bay, launched in mid-January. The Clear Bay building blocks, which come with a built-in management console, can support up to six server compute nodes and 14 serial-attached SCSI 2.5-inch hard disk drives. Clear Bay also has two Ethernet switch modules and virtual storage mapping.

CRN's Test Center calls Clear Bay "an all-in-one, top-to-bottom, rackable system that provides bladelike horsepower in an easy-to-deploy, easy-to-manage package."

Intel's long-awaited modular server has system builders and other channel partners licking their chops at the prospect of wrapping the ultra-scalable product with services for small- to midsize business customers.

Clear Bay should find its "sweet spot" with SMBs looking for enterprise-class IT solutions, said David D'Agostino, vice president of operations at Victor, N.Y.-based Brite Computers.

"I think there's no question that there's a sweet spot in the SMB space, basically anyone with 10 to 25 users. The customer is able to scale this as the company grows, so it's basically a business-in-a-box. You can continuously increase modules," D'Agostino said.

Meanwhile, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. is shipping quad-core Opterons in volume following a fix of the glitch that hampered the ramp of the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based chip maker's latest server chips late last year and the first quarter of 2008.

OEMs and system builders will have quad-core Opteron systems raring to go in April, and that's not a moment too soon for struggling AMD. Sun Microsystems Inc. announced the first such server, with Hewlett-Packard Corp. following close behind with its $17,000 ProLiant DL785 G5, built on four 2.2-GHz Opteron quad-cores with 8 Gbytes of memory.

But will four cores from AMD be enough to hang tough with rival Intel? Watch out as the chip leader takes the dust covers off a six-core server processor code-named Dunnington, which Intel Digital Enterprise Group GM Pat Gelsinger has promised to start shipping in the second half of the year.

Next: Clients

AMD certainly has the most intriguing new chip for desktops and notebooks, its triple-core Phenom processors. The chip maker started shipping to OEMs and the channel in mid-March and with system builder ZT Systems premiered the first triple-core Phenom system March 31 on QVC's "Computer Shop" show.

The new Phenoms are targeted at what AMD characterizes as an untapped market segment that wants more than dual-core processing but isn't ready to pony up for the higher price points of quad-core. The chip maker believes its 65nm-process triple-cores will appeal to consumers and businesses with a "greater than 30 percent improvements in multi-threaded application performance in comparison to dual-core processors at the same clock speed."

The triple-core line gives AMD a "unique" product, said Brian Corn, vice president of marketing and business development at Waltham, Mass.-based system builder Source Code Corp.

"I'm trying to figure out where the product fits into our mix, because it's unique. It's going to hit a price point a little bit lower than the quads. Their story's going to be, 'Hey, we're giving you a third core. You can push off antivirus to the third core, then have a dual-core doing your desktop apps," Corn said.

AMD has released clock speeds for two chips in its Phenom X3 8000 series—2.1-GHz for what it calls the Phenom X3 8400 and 2.3-GHz for the 8600. However, sources told CRN that the parts are actually designated as 8450 and 8650 to reflect the successful fix of a major glitch that affected earlier editions of Phenom, the same one that derailed the original quad-core Opteron shipment schedule. Pricing for the parts was unavailable on AMD's Web site at press time, but a source said the 8400/8450 was priced at $159 per device in 1,000-unit trays, the 8600/8650 at $179. The same source said a third triple-core Phenom was shipping to OEMs and system builders, the 2.4-GHz 8750 priced at just over $200.

Intel continues to add more dual- and quad-cores to its powerful lineup of client processors, but perhaps more intriguing is the chip leader's serious foray into the ultra low-voltage arena inhabited by much smaller x86 players like VIA Technologies Inc. and ARM. In early March, Intel announced a new brand, Atom, for a family of low-power processors set to ship to partners in Q2.

Atom, comprising the processors code-named Silverthorne and Diamondville, represents the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker's biggest push yet in the familiar mobile Internet device (MID) and ultra-mobile personal computer (UMPC) space, but also the beginning of the hype for two new, cheap, Internet-centric categories Intel hopes will capture the imagination—the "netbook" and the "nettop."

The chip giant believes that netbooks in particular will have a huge impact on both mature and developing markets. Intel CEO Paul Otellini told media and analysts in March that system builder and reseller channels should benefit from netbooks becoming a "tens-of-millions of units" opportunity by 2011.

Meanwhile, Intel and AMD both have major structural and process changes on the horizon, as Intel begins building chips on its Nehalem micro-architecture before the end of the year and AMD shifts to the 45nm fabrication process, likely beginning in the third quarter.

Next: Graphics

Discrete graphics remains the province of Nvidia Corp. and AMD, with the former holding on to a considerable market-share lead—particularly at the very high end—over the latter's ATI graphics division. The two companies are battling it out with exciting new products as Q2 approaches, but where Nvidia and AMD are happy to agree is in evangelizing GPU computational power for tasks well outside of traditional graphics processing.

Drew Henry, general manager of Nvidia's MCP business unit, reports that his company is seeing 5,000 downloads a week of the CUDA programming language. CUDA is the C language that was developed to make it far easier for developers to code algorithms for execution on GPUs.

"It turns out that there are certain computational tasks that the GPU can do up to 100 times better than CPUs," Henry said. But while the GPU is being put to use as never before for a wide array of parallel computing tasks, don't think Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nvidia has forgotten about its bread-and-butter—hard-core 3D graphics.

The graphics chip maker released the GeForce 9800 GTX on April 1, following on the heels of the 9800 GX2's release in mid-March. Those devices represent the latest and greatest in graphics for enthusiasts, but they also feature Nvidia's HybridPower technology, which automatically switches from the 9800 GTX or GX2 graphics card to the motherboard GeForce GPU when a system is running nongraphically intensive applications "for a silent, low-power PC experience."

Saving power? Is Nvidia going soft? Hey, when the price of power keeps going up, even the wildest gamers are going to be happy that their systems are smart about saving energy.

Nvidia's main discrete graphics rival AMD has some great midprice GPUs of its own, but tech watchers say the place where we're really starting to see the company's integration of ATI come together is in chipsets. Specifically the 780 series AMD debuted at CeBIT in March.

CRN's Test Center gave the 780G chipset a rave review, while Equus Computer Systems Inc.'s Joe Toste thinks the boards slide right into a sweet spot in the midmarket segment for mainstream PCs.

"It's a very interesting platform. We think in some markets it's going to be a phenomenal platform, maybe better than the Intel solution. And that makes Intel work harder, which is a good thing," said Toste, vice president of marketing at the Minneapolis-based system builder.

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