Intel unleashes Nehalem-EP server CPUs

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Santa Clara (CA) – The first server version of the Nehalem processor is officially out of the gate. Intel says it is the most important server processor it has launched in 14 years and claims that it now dominates every 2-socket server performance benchmark and even some 4-socket benchmarks with a 2-socket Nehalem system. And despite all those new technologies that, according to Intel, will guide the way into the server CPU future, we also notice that Nehalem is the processor that made a single-core CPU look “cool” again.
 
In some way, Intel’s Nehalem-EP CPU launch, which is now called the Xeon 5500 series (succeeding the Penryn-based Xeon 5400 series), isn’t new anymore. Apple jumped the gun on March 3 by announcing a new Mac Pro that integrates the chip. Intel was not exactly happy that Apple did not care about any official launch dates, but still made every effort today to “launch” the processor, which will be offered in ten flavors initially, ranging from dual- to quad-cores, from 2 GHz to 3.2 GHz in clock speed and from $188 to $1600 in tray prices.

The processor, which carries 731 million transistors in the quad-core version, will be extended to an 8-core Nehalem-EX version later this year.

Senior vice president Pat Gelsinger led through the presentation and told the audience that the 5500 series will transform server processors in a similar way the Pentium Pro (which eventually turned into the Xeon series) did in 1995. Much about the Xeon 5500 is about performance. Offering 90 GFlops in a dual-core package, it has already set 30 new benchmark records for dual-socket systems, Gelsinger said, and “left Sparc and Power [processors] in the dust.”  
 
Gelsinger highlighted several new technologies, such as the 82599 dual 10 GbE controller, which doubles the performance capability of the previous version as well as a new “Node manager” which allows IT managers to cap the power consumption of Nehalem processors at certain levels. The executive also pushed Nehalem’s “Turbo Mode” as an especial “cool” feature: The chip has core circuit breakers, which enables the chip to shut entire cores off and shift saved power into more clock speed into the operating cores. If there are only two threads running on a quad-core chip, two cores can be shut off and additional clock speed can accelerate the other two cores. The maximum clock speed can be reached, in theory, when there is only one active core. We take note: Single-core processors are cool again.

The Xeon 5500 series is socket-compatible with the upcoming 32 nm Westmere processors, which are expected to become available as quad-core and 6-core CPUs in early 2010.

More to come.