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The E7 Series of Xeon server CPUs, formerly known as "Westmere-EX" represent an impressive technical achievement for Intel, packing 10 cores in a single die.  (Source: Intel)

The processors are priced incredibly high, though, with the cheapest 2.4 GHz chip costing $4,200.  (Source: Intel)

By contrast, a 2.4 GHz Sandy Bridge server chip is currently available for $294 that offers superior power efficiency and a more advanced architecture.  (Source: Intel)
Overpriced and outdated, but packing an amazing core-count Intel's Xeon Westmere-EX server chips are a curious beast

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 Series".  

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 writes:

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 core).

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 USD ($72.50/core).  

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 servers.

IV. Conclusions

The E7 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.

Comments     Threshold

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What's with the Intel hate around here lately?
By MrTeal on 4/6/2011 12:07:48 PM , Rating: 2
For a company that's really dominating the market, you sure seem to dump on Intel a lot lately, Jason. These processors have always been expensive, a Nelahem X7560 will set you back $4000 at Newegg right now.

Intel misses the boat sometimes, but their CPUs are heads and shoulders above AMD's desktop CPUs right now. The tone of the articles on DailyTech concerning Intel lately has been pretty negative considering how much of a performance gap there is between themselves and AMD. Looking at the articles posted about Intel's CPU business in the last couple months, they've all been about how upcoming ARM chips will destroy Intel, how NVIDIA will destroy Intel, how Llano will destroy Intel, and now how the new chips are too expensive.

By Da W on 4/6/2011 2:00:26 PM , Rating: 2
Same as Google will destroy Microsoft, Nvidia ARM chips will destroy x86, Apple Apple Apple!!!, end of PC era, Microsoft is doomed bla bla bla

By ekv on 4/6/2011 2:30:45 PM , Rating: 2
You need to quit with the Roman numerals in your articles.
You know when you're trying to remember something it helps to repeat it often, even make up ways to repeat it.

By MrTeal on 4/6/2011 4:46:24 PM , Rating: 3
All prices Newegg.
DVD-Burner $19
Cheapo case$25
Coolermaster 460W PS $25
1TB 7200RPM HDD $55
4GB DDR3 $40
18.5" Monitor $78
Keyboard and mouse $12
Windows 7 HP $100
That's $355 for the basic stuff, leaving $245 for CPU/MB/Video.

Intel Setup
H61 Motherboard $60
i5-2300 CPU $185
Total Intel Cost $600

Foxconn AM3 MB $45
Phenom X6 1050T $200
Total AMD Cost $600

The really low price-points are the ones that AMD is most competitive at, and even here the 2300 with outperform the 1050T in most tasks, other than maybe encryption or some encoding. Open up the price range a little wider, and Intel's lineup really begins to shine. The processor above is really only $30 cheaper and 100MHz slower than AMD's top of the line. Start pitting the 2500K or 2600K up against it and Sandy Bridge moves way ahead of AMD.

The only usage where the current sandy bridge lineup falls apart is budget gaming since you wouldn't be able to fit a $100 video card into the $600 limit using SNB.

By FITCamaro on 4/7/2011 8:17:28 AM , Rating: 3
Well to be honest that's where a lot of the future will be. Serious PC gaming and what not is a niche market, not a mass market in the grand scheme of things. Especially with consoles vastly overtaking PC gaming.

Most people are fine with a laptop these days. They don't need large tower PCs to do what they need.

By EricMartello on 4/7/2011 7:03:58 PM , Rating: 1
You know a lot of people - being the typical consumer - doesn't actually know what they need. They do not have a technical understanding of computers and they really don't know why it would be better to get a higher-powered CPU/GPU vs a cheap lower-powered netbook.

The fact of the matter is that nowadays, even something as mundane as "browsing the web and checking email" can be rather demanding on the computer, especially with Flash and HTML5 making more use of GPU-accelerated 3D graphics. The weak, outdated tech that powers netbooks cannot reliably play high-def video, and the integrated GPUs are a joke that would struggle to play Quake 1 at 640x480...on top of all that, they run extremely slowly by modern standards.

The PC game market was never really bigger than console gaming, but I see that most platforms are converging. It's not like the days of Super Nintendo vs Sega Genesis, where each console had a distinctive and exclusive library of games that would warrant buying one of the other, or both.

The "power user" and "extreme gamer" niches are small compared to the mainstream, but there's really no excuse for NOT developing new CPU technology if you are a company whose primary business is designing CPUs.

"Vista runs on Atom ... It's just no one uses it". -- Intel CEO Paul Otellini

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