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Hardware Today: Nocona Rushes the 64-bit Playing Field

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jan 18, 2005


When I get older, losing my Hertz, many years from now,
Will you still be sending me some instructions,
I/O requests, and plenty of RAM?
If I time out at quarter to three, would you go dual-core?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me, Xeon 64?
Intel took much flack for misreading the market and letting AMD into the arena in 2004. With the Nocona install base spreading like wildfire, will 2005 again be Intel's year?

In his mid-20s, former Beatle Paul McCartney mused about life and love when he reached the ripe old age of 64. While McCartney will pass that milestone next year, Intel passed it a few months ago with Nocona, its 64-bit Xeon processor. Will it continue to be loved by the enterprise market place? Based on sales from its introduction to the market, the answer appears to be affirmative.

"We shipped over 1 million units in 2004 and are now nearing the 2 million mark in the first quarter of 2005," said Jerry Braun, product line manager of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group. "It has been one of our best Xeon product introductions on record."

"Nocona sells into the same volume markets that Xeons have been selling into for years — that is, just about all of them."

Based on those stats, it's safe to assume Intel's customer base has accepted the Nocona processor. Braun reports especially strong adoption in both Fortune 500 accounts and in the SMB sector. In particular, Intel has seen an affinity for 64-bit computing support in emerging market segments, like digital content creation and digital animation, computer automated design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM), medical imaging, oil and gas exploration, electronic design automation (EDA), and other high-performance computing (HPC) segments. Nocona's strength in HPC is evidenced by the 232 entries on the Top 500 supercomputer list that are based on Xeon processor based.

"Nocona sells into the same volume markets that Xeons have been selling into for years — that is, just about all of them," said Gordon Haff, a senior analyst at the research firm Illuminata. "Even in the HPC sector, where chips like Itanium, Opteron, and POWER are particularly strong, a lot of 'mass-market' clusters are built around Xeon processors."

IDC analyst John Humphreys agrees that many 64-bit Xeon early adopters are in HPC. But he adds that environments with heavy database usage are also gravitating toward Nocona.

"Clusters in the HPC space that leverage Linux are big drivers," said Humphreys. "These are transitioning from a large Symmetric Multi-Processing (SMP) installed base to platforms like Nocona."

Irwindale is Coming

Since its release last summer, Intel has introduced some upgrades to 64-bit Xeon. This included a new version of the chipset for PCI Express adapter card support, processor support for Execute Disable Bit functionality (also known as NX support) and industry-readiness for demand-based switching. Execute Disable Bit can prevent certain classes of malicious "buffer overflow" attacks when combined with a supporting operating system.

The company also introduced a 55 watt low-power version of the processor. This is the 2.80 GHz LV Intel Xeon processor with an 800 MHz system bus. It is designed for high-density blade and embedded applications. The road map for 2005 and beyond plots for steady increases in speed and performance. But the days of the gigahertz wars may be coming to an end if the utterances of Intel spokespeople are anything to go by: "We are increasing platform value beyond just gigahertz improvements," said Braun.

He cites a new version of the processor coming in early 2005 with twice the Level-2 cache (2 MB instead of 1 MB). Known as Irwindale, this Xeon 64-bit upgrade is expected to provide up to a 15 percent performance improvement for memory-intensive workloads.

"In addition to the usual frequency bumps, Intel will be releasing Irwindale this year as a Nocona enhancement," said Haff. "I'd expect Intel to sell both sizes of cache, at least for a time."

Intel is also preparing for next-generation SMP server platforms based on the Intel Xeon processor MP platform, and the company is planning to deliver new enterprise-class platforms incorporating 64-bit computing with Intel's EM64T technology.

"Relatively few Nocona systems are using Intel EM64T technology — that is the extended 64-bit registers — although support is available on Linux today," said Haff.

This may change in the next few months. EM64T will certainly benefit from the upcoming release of Service Pack 1 for Windows Server 2003. As 2005 progresses, look for EM64T to play a greater role in the company's 64-bit Xeon offerings.

In the second half of 2005, Nocona/Irwindale will get the dual-processor (DP) and multi-processor (MP) treatment. Intel is gearing up for the sea-change transition to dual- and multiple cores per socket, with a host of new compilers, tools, optimizations, and development platforms. The plan is to extend 64-bit computing support across the Intel Xeon processor MP family.

"For 2005, the big addition will be the inclusion of MP to take Nocona into the 4- way-plus markets," said Humphreys.

Playing Catch Up

Nocona's main competition is AMD's Opteron. Certainly, Intel is still playing catch up, first with 64-bit extensions and then with dual-core. But recent and upcoming changes to its Xeon line may be bringing Intel be back on track strategically. Now it's a matter of which company can execute best during the next several years. And with the planned enhancements and the company's superior marketing drive, betting heavily against Intel is not recommended.

"2005 will be the year that Intel drives 64-bit pervasively across the enterprise," said Braun. "We are strongly positioned for the advent of new 64-bit operating systems from Microsoft, with silicon, compilers, and tools already available to support the migration."

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