Intel Launches Nehalem “Virtualisation” Chip


Intel officials, touting new performance, energy efficiency and virtualisation capabilities, unveiled the new Xeon 5500 series—once known as Nehalem EP—for the high-volume server space.

Intel has officially rolled out its “Nehalem EP” Xeon processors for two-socket systems, with officials touting the performance and efficiency gains as well as the improvements in virtualisation capabilities.

At an event in San Francisco, Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group, touted the new chips—officially called the Xeon 5500 series—as the most significant processor launch since the Pentium Pro was released in 1995.

The Xeon 5500 series is “as significant and transformational as the Pentium Pro was in its day,” Gelsinger said.

The announcement was the latest step in the ongoing rollout of Intel’s Nehalem architecture, which is replacing the chip maker’s core architecture. The first of the Nehalem chips, for high-end PCs and workstations, were launched last Autumn. The Nehalem EX chips, for servers with four or more sockets, are expected to launch later this year.

During a 50-minute presentation, Gelsinger outlined significant enhancements in Nehalem in the areas of performance, energy efficiency and virtualization. He said that the quad-core 5500 series had set more than 30 records for performance in the two-socket server space, and more than doubled the performance of the current 5400 series.

The Xeon 5500 series, built on the 45-nanomter manufacturing process, also offers triple the memory bandwidth of previous chips and can dynamically adjust to multiple and disparate workloads and conditions. Gelsinger focused on Turbo Boost, a feature that enables IT administrators to dynamically boost or lower the clock speed of individual cores depending on utilisation and demand.

“All of a sudden, you get more horsepower for your engine,” he said.

Other performance features include an integrated memory controller, similar to what Advanced Micro Devices has offered on its Opteron chips since 2003, and the QuickPath chip-to-chip interconnect.

Energy-efficiency gains come from a number of new and enhanced features, including a processor idle power level of 10 watts, new integrated power gates based on Intel’s high-k metal gate technology that enable cores that aren’t being utilized to power down automatically, and up to 15 automated operating states.

Other new features include the automated new server boards and the Intel 82559 10 Gigabit Ethernet Controller, which also offers more virtualization capabilities and unified networking support. The I/O virtualisation technologies include Intel VT-c for greater interconnect capabilities across Intel multicore chip platforms. VT-c also works with Intel I/O Acceleration Technology and Virtual Machine Device Queues to improve virtualization performance.

In addition, Intel announced Intel Data Center Manager, an SDK (software development kit) that lets administrators set power policies in chips, servers and racks.

Gelsinger said the 5500 series offers a 9-1 consolidation ratio for servers running older Intel chips and a nine-times improvement in the data centre space, and does this while being 18 percent more energy-efficient.

In comparison with other chip platforms, he said the 5500 series beats Sun Microsystems’ most efficient UltraSPARC T2 processor, with half the cost and 1.71 times the performance. Compared with IBM’s Power5 chip, the 5500 series is a tenth of the cost and 2.45 times the performance, he said.

Gelsinger also said the Nehalem chips are socket-compatible with the upcoming six-core “Westmere” 32-nm chips.

“For Intel, [Nehalem] is an extremely important product because of the performance increases, because of the capabilities inherent in the process and [because now] Intel can say unequivocally that they’ve taken back the lead from their smaller rival [AMD],” said John Spooner, an analyst with Technology Business Research.

Since releasing Opteron, AMD has touted a superior design over Intel’s Xeon chips, in particular pointing to the integrated memory controller, which does away with the need for a front-side bus. Having an integrated memory controller is a big step for Intel, particularly given the growing demand of memory-intensive workloads.

AMD officials downplayed Intel’s announcement of Nehalem. Margaret Lewis, director of commercial solutions at AMD, acknowledged in an interview days before the Intel launch that the improved hyperthreading capabilities and the integrated memory controller in the Xeon 5500 series were a “big tech change” for Intel.

However, Lewis emphasized that AMD has had an integrated memory controller in Opteron for six years, and stressed what she called a “very stable” road map that includes moving to the six-core “Istanbul” chip this year and a new platform starting next year.

The platform will include four memory channels; the 5500 series currently includes three, and the two previous Opterons—“Barcelona” and the current “Shanghai”—offer two.

AMD is not the only competitor underwhelmed by Intel’s announcement. Officials at SiCortex, which makes its own energy-efficient high-performance computers, argued that while Nehalem may improve performance, energy efficiency will suffer. Intel upgraded memory performance with the integrated memory controller, but will suffer in clock speed and I/O capabilities, they said.

That said, users are looking forward to what the Nehalem architecture can do.

Jevin Jensen, senior director of IS technical services for carpet company Mohawk Industries, said the moves Intel made to the new architecture are attractive.

“I am especially pleased to see they have added the memory controller into the CPU, like AMD has had for a while,” Jensen said.

However, he said Mohawk would have to wait until the model for four-socket systems is released before standardising on Nehalem. Mohawk has standardised on four-socket systems for its VMware and database servers, which is its most common requirement for enterprise business applications currently.

Analysts are split on how quickly they see the Nehalem EP systems being adopted. Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, said the 5500 series hits the sweet spot—the two-socket systems—of a server market that, while hampered by the global recession, is still seeing businesses buying hardware.

In a blog March 30, Forrester Research analyst James Staten wrote that the enhancements Intel made to the architecture are significant, but that the real selling point is the return on investment through increased server consolidation.

“While it may sound counterintuitive in a cash crunch economy like today’s to be recommending the purchase (and accelerated purchasing) of new IT equipment, remember that for every less efficient server you remove from your environment, you end a support contract, free up admin time, recoup power and rack capacity, reduce the consumption of OS licenses and thus bring down overall TCO,” Staten wrote.

However, Technology Business Research’s Spooner was less optimistic that businesses would quickly buy new Nehalem-powered servers.

“It’s going to be slowed by the economy,” said Spooner, pointing out that the expected life cycle of servers is growing from three years to four or five. The cost of acquisition “is tough. … If I can spend $5,000 (£3502) to $10,000 on a machine—even though it uses less power—do I even have the money in my budget for it? For many companies, the answer is ‘no.’”

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