Intel Rolls Out Faster Xeons

Intel Corp. shrank its dies for the Xeon line of chips, allowing the company to make faster processors. Intel’s plants moved to a smaller 0.18 micron process for Xeon processors for midrange server applications.

The new processors, released last month, boast speeds up to 700 MHz, and offer either 1 MB or 2 MB of Level 2 (L2) cache. Xeons previously topped out at 550 MHz. The previous 550 MHz chips had 2 MB of L2 cache, but the new Xeons are the first to offer 2 MB on die.

Grant Greg, product marketing director at Intel (www.intel.com), says the Xeon with the smaller 1 MB L2 cache is aimed at entry level servers, while the larger processor is designed primarily for four- and eight-way servers.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, says the on-die cache alone will improve performance by 10 percent. "Added with the increase to 700 MHz, you’re really packing quite a bit of computational punch," he says.

Like the Pentium III, the new Xeons will keep the 100 MHz front side bus (FSB). Intel regards this move as incremental, so it kept the FSB the same as previous Xeon releases. "We didn’t want to thrash [users] with a new FSB," Greg says. Users would not be interested in upgrading hardware for a faster FSB, so Intel kept the clock rate the same.

Brookwood has a second explanation for the lower FSB - physics. Due to electrical reasons, Intel could not increase the FSB of Pentium-based processors and expect four-way and eight-way machines to perform reliably. Since these processors were designed for the multiprocessor market, it was a necessary decision for Intel to make.

Some vendors are creating proprietary servers partitionable beyond eight ways that are not based off of Intel’s Profusion chipset. Greg expects the new Xeons to be used in these machines, as well.

Intel is optimistic about the performance of the new line. "Expect to see some really exciting benchmarks from the usual suspects," Greg says, suggesting that leading server vendors like Dell Computer Corp. (www.dell.com) and Compaq Computer Corp. (www.compaq.com) will release very fast servers with the new chips.

Brookwood suspects vendors will be able to bring the new Xeons to market very quickly. "This is virtually a drop-in type of product," he says.

Within a week of the Intel chip release, Compaq announced a new record benchmark on the SAP AG (www.sap.com) Sales and Distribution benchmark using the 700-MHz Xeons with 2 MB of Advanced Transfer Cache. The benchmark result of 7,500 users was about a 12 percent jump over the previous mark of 6,700 users.

Although Intel's 64-bit Itanium has captured the attention of the server market, there will be plenty of 32-bit fun to come. In addition to more Xeons, Intel is working on another generation of 32-bit processors, Williamette, which is expected late this year. The processor will eliminate the 100 MHz FSB limitation for four-way and eight-way servers.