Intel Launches Xeon, Its Warrior Processor

Intel Corp. launched the opening salvo of its invasion into the RISC processor-dominated high-end computing market. With the unveiling of the Pentium II Xeon, a 400-MHz 32-bit processor that will be used in Intel-built eight-way SMP systems and clustered processing, Intel is setting the stage for yet another upward push. A 450-MHz version of Xeon will follow later this year.

With Xeon, Intel is targeting the $25,000-and-up server market, an area where the chipmaker's presence has been weak or nonexistent, says Larry Michel, product marketing manager for Intel's enterprise server group. The Xeon processor family now tops off Intel's multitier market strategy, with Cerelon processors designed for basic PC desktops and Pentium IIs for performance desktops. Intel's march into the enterprise will culminate with the release of the 64-bit Merced processor, now scheduled for mid-2000.

The Xeon processor features 512-KB and 1-MB level 2 caches, which will be expanded to 2 MB with the 450-MHz processor. The processor includes a P6 system bus that runs at 100 MHz. Xeon also supports four PCI buses -- vs. two on previous processors.

This puts Intel in a position to "offer IS executives the caliber of performance they have only seen up until late from RISC/UNIX servers," according to "Intel’s Enterprise Strategy for the New Century," an analysis from Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. "For IS executives, it will mean better performing Intel-based servers at a lower operating cost. Intel is helping to set the stage for a dramatic industrywide shift with its IA-64 platform."

While the Pentium II Xeon processor is intended to replace the Pentium Pro family, Pentium Pro production will continue for some time to come to fulfill long-term contracts, Intel’s Michel says. "Some changes happen slowly in the enterprise marketplace," he adds. While Intel works toward releasing its 64-bit Merced processor later in 1999, the company will also continue to advance its IA- 32 families as well, Michel adds. "In 1999 and 2000, we'll continue to produce new generations of IA-32 specifically for workstations and servers."

The Xeon processor offers faster throughput because its cache runs at the same 400-MHz clock rate as the processor itself, says Raghu Murthi, director of product marketing for Intel's workstation products division. Until now, cache speed was half that of CPU speed. This helps address speeding up the efficiency of the I/O subsystem, which reduces bottlenecks as faster processors are produced. In its analysis, Aberdeen Group lauds Intel's efforts to extend performance through high-performance buses and more intelligent I/O devices that can carry some of the functions once performed by the main CPU.

Xeon pricing is comparable to that of Pentium Pro, only about 6 to 8 percent higher. "The price points basically stay the same, but the capability has dramatically increased," Intel’s Michel notes. As a result, buyers can expect to see eight-way servers in the "$17,000 to $20,000 range, where there only used to be four-way."

Along with increased performance, the Xeon processor cartridge offers new manageability features such as a ROM area for processor information and thermal reference data. A thermal sense capability monitors the core temperature of the processors, and alerts users to problems. An additional ROM area is reserved for OEM use.

Intel is offering two Xeon-based chipsets specifically designed for servers and workstations. The 450NX, designed for servers, will support four SMP processors, up to 8 GB of memory, and a cluster connector, while the 440GX version supports high-level graphics.

New SMP and clustering technologies offer standardized alternatives to the proprietary approaches currently offered by OEMs. Eight-way SMP configurations will be included with Intel's Profusion PCIset, scheduled to ship by the beginning of 1999. With the demise of Axil Computer Corp. (Concord, Mass., after its parent company Hyundai Electronics America terminated financing of the startup, it appears the Intel Profusion design may become the industry standard.

Beyond SMP, Intel is also making its Virtual Interface (VI) architecture available as part of the new processor family. VI is designed to "standardize hardware and software interfaces for clustering," Michel says. Intel has also been working closely with Microsoft Corp. on the clustering technology. Essentially there will be "no limits on the number of CPUs [Xeon and VI] can scale to," according to Michel. OEMs will begin offering 16- and 32-way Xeon processor-based systems by the end of this year and eventually even 64-way Intel-based systems, he predicts.

Along with offering Windows NT, a number of OEMs will be offering UNIX solutions on Pentium II Xeon-based systems, including Sun Microsystems Inc., Santa Cruz Operation Inc., NCR Corp., Sequent Computer Systems Inc., Data General Corp., and Unisys Corp.

Some applications vendors have already been taking the Xeon processor for test drives. Arbor Software Corp. (Sunnyvale, Calif. ran its Essbase 5.0 on a system running on a four-way Pentium II Xeon-based server, simulating a workload of 100 users simultaneously running 250,000 complex queries each. The system ran at 40 percent utilization, compared with 80 percent using a Pentium Pro processor-based server.