Intel Xeon 7500 Series x86 Server Processor Buyers Guide

I've attended hundreds of press junkets from IT vendors over the years, and the norm is a heavy dose of hype to herald what is in reality a minor upgrade or shift: partnerships that will revolutionize the industry; a new software version that is truly enterprise class; a next-generation server that can scale upward and outward to infinity. In the bulk of cases, these messages have only a tiny kernel of truth heavily wrapped in overpromises.

Hard-Core Hardware: "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound" -- will Nehalem EX be the cornerstone in x86 servers that are really as good as Intel claims?

Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), too, has been playing this game for years. It must, after all, put a positive spin on the fact that the latest processor is only a little bit better, or that its chip is slowing catching up with AMD's (as it was a couple of years back). But the overblown nature of it all grates a little on the soul.

So it was interesting to hear Intel this week announcing something that might actually deliver a decent percentage of what is promised -– the Xeon 7500 processor series, or Nehalem EX. Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's data center group, seemed genuinely thrilled about this latest product. There was a ring of truth to the excitement that I really haven't seen in a press conference for a while.

This chip is the final step of the transition to the company's Nehalem architecture across its PC, laptop and server processor lines. According to Skaugen, it marks the largest leap in performance in Xeon's history. A raft of new features to heighten the reliability of what is now an eight-core, 16-thread processor that can scale up from two sockets to 256 in one system. Up to 1 TB of memory can be accommodated by a four-processor server.

Bottom line: Skaugen said one small box using the Xeon 7500 can replace 20 comparable single-core servers. As well as maintaining the same level of performance, this could result in up to a 92 percent reduction in energy costs with ROI within a year.

"The Xeon 7500 brings mission-critical capabilities to the mainstream by delivering the most significant leap in performance, scalability and reliability ever seen from Intel," said Skaugen. "This combination will help users push to new levels of productivity, and accelerate the industry's migration away from proprietary architectures. We are democratizing high-end computing."

I didn't say there wasn't the obligatory propaganda in there against the RISC camp. But at least there is more substance to claims than usual. Of course, the famed reliability additions to the Xeon 7500, such as Machine Check Architecture (MCA) Recovery, have been available in the mainframe and RISC systems for decades. MCA gets the processor working better with the OS and virtual machine manager to recover from errors.

But rather than a parade of sound bytes, Intel smartly backed up its claims by serving up a vast number of brand new benchmarks -- 20 new world records in all. Further, it captured the imagination of the entire server landscape with this new product. Cray, Hitachi, HP, Oracle, Cisco, Dell, Fujitsu, IBM, Bull, NEC, Inspur, Supermicro, Quanta and SGI were all mentioned during the 30 minute talk. Software support is also heavily in evidence from the likes of Citrix, Microsoft, Novell, Red Hat, SAP and VMware. I've never seen such partner backing behind a single hardware announcement before -– it was almost at the level of a new Microsoft OS release in that regard.

No Octo-Core Here

First, we had dual-core processors, then came quad-core. For some reason nobody is calling this an octo-core processor. It is simply eight core. Anyway, the Xeon 7500, has eight cores and sixteen threads available with frequencies up to 2.66 GHz, and 24 MB of Intel Smart Cache memory. Its power output ranges from 95 watts to 130 watts.

The various flavors include the eight-core X7560, which has its name says, eight cores and 24MB of cache. This one is aimed at "highly parallel, data demanding and mission-critical workloads." The X7542, on the other hand, is said to be a "frequency-optimized 6-core option at 2.66 GHz targeted for super-node, high-performance computing applications in science and financial services."

"In Xeon 7500, Intel has provided both its vendor partners and their server customers with a game-changing technology," said Pund-IT Analyst Charles King. "Xeon 7500 provides x86 server vendors of every stripe the means to become more complex and comprehensive systems thinkers. We're already seeing that in solutions like IBM's eX5 and Dell's PowerEdge offerings. Over time, we expect that Intel's Xeon 7500 series will help other vendors and their customers consider or reconsider x86-based servers in an entirely new light."

Drew Robb is a freelance writer specializing in technology and engineering. Currently living in California, he is originally from Scotland, where he received a degree in geology and geography from the University of Strathclyde. He is the author of Server Disk Management in a Windows Environment (CRC Press).

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This article was originally published on Apr 2, 2010
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