Today Intel announced a new family of server
processors, the E7. These processors pack up to 10 Westmere architecture
cores into a single chip (a so-called "deca-core" chip). They also
pack a sticker price that may leave you in shock.
I. The History of Westmere-EX
Intel follows a "tick-tock" model of processor releases. One
year it releases a new architecture, the next year it releases a die shrink of
that architecture. This two year cycle has held steady more or less for
the last five years.
Conroe was the "tock" and it was followed by a
"tick", the die shrink Penryn. In turn, Penryn was
supplanted by a new architecture ("tock"), Nehalem.
Nehalem launched in November 2008.
Nehalem was an important architecture for several reasons.
First, it brought major performance and power efficiency improvements to
the table. Second, the 45 nm die size allowed Intel to offer an octa-core
(eight core) chip for the first time.
And finally, it features an in-package integrated GPU chip. Intel wanted
to place the iGPU on-die, but due to difficulties, it packaged the CPU cores
and iGPU as two discrete pieces of silicon inside the same package. But
that line of thinking would eventually give rise to Sandy Bridge,
Intel's current generation laptop/desktop offering that actually does offer the
iGPU and CPU cores on the same die.
By January 2010 Intel had already unleashed a die shrink of Nehalem.
Code-names for the various die-shrunk processor lines included Arrandale,
dual-core laptop processors, Clarkdale, dual-core desktop
processors, Gulftown, hexa-core processors for "extreme"
desktop performance, and Westmere-EP, a server chip for
dual-processor (DP) server boards.
While there's typically a limit to how many cores a user can really take
advantage of on a desktop, IT users often demand as many cores as they can get
to handle their more complex loads. Thus Intel excited many when, in
September 2010 at the Intel Developers Forum conference in San Francisco, it promised a H1 2011 release of deca-core (10 core) chips for
the server market.
Dubbed Westmere-EX, these chips were finally launched this week [press release].
II. A Confused Lineup
Due to a slow roll out of the Westmere-EX line, Sandy
Bridge server chips (dual and quad core) have already launched, with
the lineup continuing to fill in with minor launches over H1 2011.
Sandy Bridge is Intel's latest new architecture ("tock").
Intel dubbed the Sandy Bridge server chips the "E3
It has dubbed the older-architecture Westmere chips the
"E7 Series", which makes sense from a core-count perspective, but is
somewhat confusing from an architecture perspective (the older architecture has
a higher number).
Likewise in performance, the processors offer a bit of a confusing dichotomy,
as well. Sandy Bridge chips pack fewer cores, but those cores
are more efficient and more powerful. Westmere-EX (the E7
Series) packs up to 10 cores, each which can be used in a server with up to 256
sockets and up to 2 TB of RAM.
Intel is marketing E7 Series chips -- the Intel® Xeon processor E7-8800/4800/2800 product
families -- as drop in replacements for multi-chip server setups. It
IT managers seeking to achieve greater economic
efficiencies can replace 18 dual-core servers2 with a single
Xeon processor E7-based server. To help address rising energy costs, the new
Xeon chips include Intel® Intelligent Power technology that
dynamically reduces idle power consumption of the chip based on the workload
while also delivering advanced processor power-management capabilities.
III. Okay Chip, Crazy Price
The E7 Series is already outdated in terms of core design. But in its
sheer number of cores it should offer some strong performance.
And its 130-watt TDP at 2.4 GHz (13 watts per core) is nothing to laugh at.
To put this in perspective, the quad-core Sandy Bridge E3-1260L
server chip is also clocked at 2.4 GHz and draws 45 watts (11.25 watts per
While only a die-shrink, Westmere does offer some refinements
over the two-year old Nehalem. It adds support for the Intel Advanced Encryption Standard New Instruction (AES-NI),
which gives native support for common cryptography functions. Similarly,
it implements a new security technology dubbed Intel
Trusted Execution Technology (Intel TXT), which attempts to
offer greater security upon system boot.
Price [PDF], though, is a huge concern for
the E7 Series. A single Xeon E7-2870 chip, when purchased in a quantity
of 1,000 costs $4,227 USD ($422.7 USD/core). A Xeon E3-1260L costs $290
Given that server boards cost around $175
dollars, about the only perk that they offer use is a consolidation
of space -- 2 E7 Series servers will obviously take up less space than 5 E3
Series is a curious beast. It’s seemingly overpriced, yet it packs up to 10
cores into a single package. This may be a welcome feature to businesses looking to consolidate systems, but only time will tell if businesses will warm
up to Intel’s latest Xeon processors.
If Intel can make a 10-core server processor based on Sandy Bridge,
maybe it would be a bit more compelling, even at that price point. For
now Intel may have to weigh sales and consider a price cut.