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Overpriced and outdated, but packing an amazing core-count Intel's Xeon Westmere-EX server chips are a curious beast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.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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