Intel Out To Transform The World With Nehalem

Intel made its case for transforming the data center Monday, launching its Nehalem-class Xeon 5500 series of server chips with its entire ecosystem in tow at the chip maker's Santa Clara, Calif., campus. More than 70 vendors and white-box builders are ready with some 230 new products built around the benchmark-busting processor, leading Intel's Pat Gelsinger to call the first Nehalem DP server chips "a product we truly believe is transformational."

"This is the most important server launch we have done since the Pentium Pro," said Gelsinger, a senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprises Group. Under a Xeon-festooned backdrop promising an "Intelligent Choice" -- while "Smarter Choice" is newly available, that tagline probably wasn't given much thought at Intel headquarters -- Gelsinger sketched the broad details and put Nehalem through its paces for a pair of eye-opening power management and virtualization demos.

The upshot -- Intel is hitting the market with 17 new enterprise-class server/workstation processors based on its Nehalem microarchitecture, including 14 dual-core and quad-core chips in the Xeon 5500 series (formerly code-named Gainestown) ranging in price from $188 to $1,600 for 1,000-unit orders, and three in the Xeon 3500 series (formerly Bloomfield) available for $284, $562 and $999.

Gelsinger's comparison of the 5500 series to the success of 1995's Pentium Pro, Intel's first server workload-optimized chip, may be a case of the chip giant getting ahead of itself considering that these parts have been released for all of one day. On the other hand, the new device has already smashed 30 benchmarking records for two-socket server processors (and even a few four-socket records), many by eye-opening margins -- 64 percent, 87 percent and 154 percent were numbers that flashed on the screen during Gelsinger's presentation on benchmarking.

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And Nehalem apparently saves its best for virtualized workloads. The processor gets 160 percent better performance over the previous record holder as per VMware's VMmark benchmark, the largest performance gain for any of the new records set by the new Xeons.

"We see the 5500 as the perfect platform for server pool flexibility, virtualization and energy efficiency in the data center," Gelsinger said.

To that effect, he and an Intel colleague demonstrated a single Xeon 5500-based system running a heavy SQL database workload with no trouble on virtual machines migrated over from three older Intel Woodcrest servers -- and drawing three times less power with the full workload than the older boxes set on idle.

Another demonstration centered on Intel's new Turbo Boost feature, described by Gelsinger as "wicked cool technology." Turbo Boost, present on several of the new quad-core 5500 series Xeons, acts as a circuit breaker to dynamically shut off individual processor cores that aren't in use. That will likely show up as savings on the energy bill, but the power savings also can be sent over to the cores that are processing workloads to give them some extra oomph.

Nehalem also brings back Intel's hyper-threading technology and a number of other improvements over the previous Core generation of Xeon chips that boost power, energy efficiency or both. Gelsinger also promised a very easy transition from these 45-nanometer chips to the next generation of 32nm products code-named Westmere, due out by the end of the year or early 2010. The Westmere chips, including a six-core version, will drop into the same motherboard sockets as the Xeon 5500 parts, requiring a simple firmware update to get rolling.

But before that happens, Gelsinger pointed to two paths businesses might take in adopting Nehalem. The first, a one-for-one swap of older single-core Xeon servers for the new parts, would deliver nine times the performance in the data center, he contended. Or a customer might go the cost-savings route and replace those older servers with less than an eighth the number of Nehalem systems -- that would get you the same performance, but with a 90 percent reduction in energy costs.

Even more head-spinning, the second path would pay for itself in terms of capital expenditure in just eight months, according to Intel. Which, incidentally, wasn't even the most ambitious statement of the day -- Hewlett-Packard was promising a three-month ROI for customers swapping out its older ProLiant servers for the new ones.

Next: Partners On Board

"It's not next year's product, it's not last year's. This processor is the big one," said Gelsinger as he wound down his keynote. Quite a few Intel partners were inclined to agree.

Intel's highest-profile OEM and software partners were out in full force at Monday's event at the chip maker's campus. HP alone had 11 new servers based on the Xeon 5500 series and promised more than 1,000 SKUs in a complete overhaul of its ProLiant lineup of blade, rack and tower servers.

"It's the biggest launch we've ever had and this is the largest announcement that our division has ever come out with," said Paul Gottsegen, vice president of marketing for HP's Industry Standard Server business. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based computing giant is dubbing its new Nehalem-based server lineup "G6" and considers this batch the sixth generation of ProLiant systems it has developed.

IBM, historically a bit slow to push out servers based on new Intel chips, was ready right out of the gate with its own systems on Monday. "There's a lot of talk out there that IBM isn't committed to x86, but this proves that isn't true," one IBM representative told

Dell and Cisco Systems -- a new entrant to the server market -- were also on hand to tout their new Xeon 5500-series servers. Sun Microsystems won't have its lineup ready until April 14, but the company has worked overtime tweaking its Solaris and Open Solaris operating systems to coincide with the Nehalem launch.

"We've done things like develop what we call Predictive Self-Healing in Solaris, so if you get a system panic due to a problem with one of the cores, Solaris can take that core out of the system," said Herb Hinstorff, director of business management at Santa Clara-based Sun.

"There are real business opportunities with this new platform plus Solaris for channel partners, whether they're HP resellers or white-box builders. They can sell cost efficiency in a very, very competitive environment and Solaris right out of the chute is going to be able to give you those performance and efficiency benefits."

Microsoft and VMware also were at Intel to push software that they've optimized for Nehalem, the latter getting some free publicity up on stage with all the demos and talk around virtualization.

Other details included the release of two 5500 series chips built specifically for the communications and embedded markets, the arrival of Intel's 82599 10 Gigabit Ethernet controller, and of course, the Intel 5520 chipset and motherboard platform.

Here are the official specs and prices for Intel's new Nehalem processors (QPI -- Quick Path Interconnect, TB -- Turbo Boost):


Quad-Core, 130W

W3520 (2.66GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI, TB) -- $284

W3540 (2.93GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI, TB) -- $562

W3570 (3.20GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 6.4GT/s QPI, TB) -- $999


Dual-Core, 80W

E5502 (1.86GHz, 800MHz, 4 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI) -- $188

Quad-Core, 60W

L5506 (2.13GHz, 800MHz, 4 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI) -- $423

L5520 (2.26GHz, 1066MHz, 8 MB L3, 5.86GT/s QPI, TB) -- $530

Quad-Core, 80W

E5504 (2.0GHz, 800MHz, 4 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI) -- $224

E5506 (2.13GHz, 800MHz, 4 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI) -- $266

E5520 (2.26GHz, 1066MHz, 8 MB L3, 5.86GT/s QPI, TB) -- $373

E5530 (2.40GHz, 1066MHz, 8 MB L3, 5.86GT/s QPI, TB) -- $530

E5540 (2.53GHz, 1066MHz, 8 MB L3, 5.86GT/s QPI, TB) -- $744

Quad-Core, 95W

X5550 (2.66GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 6.4GT/s QPI, TB) -- $958

X5560 (2.80GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 6.4GT/s QPI, TB) -- $1,172

X5570 (2.93GHz, 1333MHz, 8 MB L3, 6.4GT/s QPI, TB) -- $1,386

Quad-Core, 130W

W5580 (3.20GHz, 1333MHz, 8MB L3, 6.4GT/s QPI, TB) -- $1,600


Quad-Core, 38W

L5508 (2.0GHz, 800MHz, 8 MB L3, 4.8GT/s QPI, TB) -- $423

Quad-Core, 60W

L5518 (2.13GHz, 1066MHz, 8 MB L3, 5.86GT/s QPI, TB) -- $530