Intel's Nehalem EP server chips hit the market

Chip maker releases Xeon 3500 and 5500, hopes they can help boost server shipments

If you weren't expecting Intel Corp. to release its latest line of server and workstation chips on Monday, you may be the only one who was surprised.

Details of the new Xeon 3500 and Xeon 5500 processors — formerly known by the Nehalem EP code name — were first announced nearly four weeks ago when Apple Inc. added models based on the quad-core chips to its line of Mac Pro workstations.

Other vendors, including Dell Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd., followed with details of their own systems based on the new chips. IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. made server announcements today to coincide with Intel's launch of the 3500 and 5500.

Intel has high hopes for the 17 individual processors that make up the Nehalem EP family, despite the recession-driven slowdown in IT spending and the chip maker's own cost-cutting actions and lack of visibility into market demand.

In fact, the company is pitching the new processors as the most significant revamp of its server chip line since the 1995 release of the Pentium Pro.

"We expect this to be one of the broadest rollouts of new technologies and a new platform, and hopefully a nice kick for the economy for people who have been waiting to buy new servers," Shannon Poulin, Xeon platform director in Intel's server products group, said in an interview.

Poulin added that Intel shipped "hundreds of thousands" of Nehalem EP chips to server makers in advance of the launch.

The Xeon 5500 line ranges in price from $188 to $1,600 per processor in 1,000-unit quantities. The 3500 chips are priced between $284 and $999, while the L5518 and L5508 models for use in embedded devices cost $530 and $423, respectively.

The new processors are the first server versions of the Nehalem chip family and include technical enhancements that greatly increase their performance relative to previous generations of the Xeon line, according to Intel officials. Most importantly, they said, the 3500 and 5500 include an on-chip memory controller and use Intel's QuickPath Interconnect technology instead of a front-side bus, resulting in a tripling of the memory bandwidth available to the processors.

The new chips also have a feature, called Turbo Boost, that can "overclock" one or more of the processor cores to help them deal with heavy workloads. The server versions are rated to run at clock speeds of up to 2.93 GHz, but Turbo Boost can temporarily raise the maximum speed to 3.3 GHz under certain conditions, Intel said. It added that the workstation chips can get a boost from 3.2 GHz to 3.46 GHz.

In high-performance computing applications, the Xeon 5500 will allow server makers to build systems capable of more than 1 quadrillion, or 1,000 trillion, floating-point operations per second, claimed Intel, which is counting on the higher performance and low power consumption of the new processors to spur corporate server sales.

Looking ahead, additional Xeon processors based on a shrunken version of the Nehalem microarchitecture called Westmere are due next year. Those chips will be made with Intel's upcoming 32-nanometer manufacturing process and are designed to be socket-compatible with the current Nehalem EP processors, which Intel hopes will lower design costs for hardware makers and make it easy for users to upgrade to Westmere-based systems.

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