Intel's Nehalem EP server chips hit the market

Chip family already available in workstations and blade servers

If you weren't expecting Intel to release its latest line of server chips Tuesday, 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 updated its line of Mac Pro computers, and other vendors soon followed with details of their own systems based on the new chips.

The 17 new Xeon chips that make up the Nehalem EP family are now available in systems, including workstations and blade servers, and Intel has high hopes for them, despite a general slowdown in IT spending and Intel's own lack of visibility into market demand.

"We expect this to be one of the broadest roll outs 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," said Shannon Poulin, Xeon platform director in Intel's Server Products Group, during an interview.

Poulin said 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 US$188 to $1,600, in 1,000 unit quantities. The 3500 chips are priced between $284 and $999, while the L5518 and L5508 embedded versions cost $530 and $423, respectively.

Intel is pitching the new chips as the most significant revamp of its server chip line since the 1995 release of the Pentium Pro.

The Xeon 5500 and Xeon 3500 are the first server versions of Intel's Nehalem chip family and include technical enhancements that greatly increase their performance relative to previous generations of the Xeon.

Most importantly, the processors have an on-chip memory controller and use Intel's QuickPath Interconnect technology instead of a front-side bus to triple the memory bandwidth available to the processors.

The new chips also have a feature, called Turbo Boost, that can overclock one or more cores on the chip to deal with a heavier processing load.

The server versions of the chips are rated to run at speeds up to 2.93GHz, but Turbo Boost can temporarily raise this to 3.3GHz under certain conditions. The workstation chips get a similar boost from 3.2GHz to 3.46GHz.

In high-performance computing applications, the new Xeon 5500 chips will allow server makers to build systems capable of more than 1 quadrillion, or 1,000 trillion, floating operations per second, Intel said.

Intel is counting on the higher performance and low power consumption to spur corporate sales, but executives admit the company has little insight into future market demand.

Looking ahead, future versions of the Nehalem EP chip called Westmere are due next year.

These chips will be made with Intel's upcoming 32-nanometer manufacturing process and will be socket-compatible with the Nehalem EP, reducing the cost for system makers to design servers that use the chip and allowing end users to easily upgrade.

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