Intel Throttles Up Next-Gen Nehalem EX Chips

Intel lifted the curtain on its Nehalem EX server processors Monday, pledging that its new Xeon 7500 series chips would bring mission-critical hardware capabilities "into the mainstream."

The new lineup of quad-core, six-core and eight-core Xeon processors represent "the most significant leap in performance, scalability and reliability ever seen from Intel," said Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the Intel architecture group and general manager of its data center group, in a statement Monday.

Formerly code-named Beckton, the Xeon 7500 series and 6500 series are also known colloquially as Nehalem EX -- a reference to the current Nehalem-class chip design Intel uses for its x86 processors and the "expandable," multi-socket server segment the new chips target. Skaugen said Xeon 7500 series chips were being used in designs ranging from two-socket server platforms up to a 256-node system built by one of more than a dozen computer makers on hand for Intel's San Francisco launch event.

The Nehalem EX series includes 11 new Xeon server processors ranging in price from $3,692 for the eight-core, 2.26GHz Xeon X7560 suitable for expandable systems of up to eight sockets and beyond, to $744 for the quad-core, 1.73GHz Xeon XE6510, which is tailored for dual-processor systems only. In between are processors sporting four, six and eight cores, some with Intel's Turbo Boost technology for throttling up individual core clock speeds and some without, all slotting into Intel's familiar thermal envelope of 95 watts to 130 watts for multi-socket server chips.

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Intel's Nehalem EX processors arrived at the end of a busy month for Intel -- just two weeks after the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant introduced its Westmere-generation of 32-nanometer processors for single-socket and dual-socket servers, the Xeon 5600 series, an upgrade to the Xeon 5500 series launched to much fanfare in March 2009.

The Xeon 7500 series represents more than an upgrade. Rather it is a full-on successor to the Xeon 7400 series, also known as Dunnington, with the new chips featuring more cores, cache and expandability options than their predecessors, Skaugen said. The 7500 series also marks the full transition to Intel's Nehalem-generation architecture across its main client and server processor brands.

The payoff? Skaugen called the Nehalem EX family's generation-to-generation improvements the "the largest performance leap in Intel Xeon processor history," citing major gains over the Dunnington generation in a number of benchmarks.

Intel also had a consolidation message to attach to those performance gains. "Data centers can replace 20 single-core servers with a single new Xeon 7500 series-based system" for identical compute performance with attendant power savings, the company said in a statement.

Next: Intel's Competition From Without And Within

Intel scheduled the launch of perhaps its most heralded new server chips for 2010 just a day after its archrival from Sunnyvale, Calif., Advanced Micro Devices, lifted the curtain on its own Magny-Cours-class eight-core and 12-core Opteron 6100 series processors for servers and workstations.

With AMD's Magny-Cours prices topping out at $1,386 for the Opteron 6176 SE processor, the upper end of Intel's Xeon 7500 series is unlikely to face direct combat with AMD's Opteron 6100 series for design wins with OEMs and custom system builders. But the bottom half of the Nehalem EX lineup starts to invite interesting comparisons between the latest products from the only two major makers of x86 server chips in the world.

For example, AMD has the aforementioned $1,386 Opteron 6176 SE to stack up against Intel's very similarly priced Xeon E7530 for $1,391. Both processors draw 105 watts, have 12MB of cache and are built for either two-socket or four-socket configurations, though the AMD chip will be scaled out to even more sockets by server makers. With the Opteron 6176 SE, you get 12 processor cores at 2.3GHz to Intel's six cores on the 1.86GHz Xeon E7530. In fairness, Intel offers 12 compute threads on its chip, thanks to Hyper-Threading, while its Turbo Boost technology gives the E7530's clock some legitimate headroom, too.

Meanwhile, both the Opteron 6100 series and the Xeon 7500 series are 45nm-generation silicon, meaning the larger company doesn't have the process technology edge over AMD that Intel often does. AMD's transition to higher latency DDR3 memory further brings into focus the apples-to-apples picture -- though it should be noted that Intel has built double the memory support-per-processor than AMD currently has.

In short, the price-for-performance arguments each company will make for their new products in the coming months could prove very popcorn-worthy.

Which isn't to say that Intel didn't have a broader story to share on Monday. Skaugen, introducing the Xeon 7500 series, spent a good deal of time on new instructions Intel has built into its Nehalem EX processors. These include new security features, virtual machine migration capabilities and the introduction of Intel's Machine Check Architecture (MCA) Recovery for the first time in a Xeon processor.

The addition of MCA Recovery was at the core of Intel's message of "bringing mission-critical computing to the mainstream." The technology works to keep a processor functioning even in the face of fatal system errors that can cause computers to seize up.

Prior to the Xeon 7500 series, Intel only had MCA Recovery in its Itanium processors and other non-x86 chips. That's long been the appeal of Itanium for mission-critical workloads where, as Skaugen put it, "many nines" of reliability are crucial.

Intel just launched its new Itanium 9300 series in February. But by building some of the most important Itanium features into its new best-in-class Xeons, does Intel risk cannibalizing its one of its own product lines with another?

Xeon 7500 Series Processors


Xeon X7560 (eight cores, 16 threads, 2.26GHz, 24MB L3 cache, 130W, TB*, HT**): $3,692

Xeon L7555 (eight cores, 16 threads, 1.86GHz, 24MB L3 cache, 95W, TB, HT): $3,157

Xeon X7550 (eight cores, 16 threads, 2.0GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 130W, TB, HT): $2,729

Xeon L7545 (six cores, 12 threads 1.86GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 95W, TB, HT): $2,087

Xeon E7540 (six cores, 12 threads 2.0GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 105W, TB, HT): $1,980

Xeon X7542 (six cores, six threads, 2.66GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 130W, TB): $1,980


Xeon E7530 (six cores, 12 threads, 1.86GHz, 12MB L3 cache, 105W, TB, HT): $1,391

Xeon E7520 (four cores, eight threads, 1.86GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 95W, HT): $856

Xeon 6500 Series Processors


Xeon X6550 (eight cores, 16 threads, 2.0GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 130W, TB. HT): $2,461

Xeon E6540 (six cores, 12 threads, 2.0GHz, 18MB L3 cache, 105W, TB, HT): $1,712

Xeon E6510 (four cores, eight threads, 1.73GHz, 12MB L3 cache, 105W, HT): $744

*Has Intel Turbo Boost Technology

** Has Intel Hyper-Threading Technology