Tuesday's big chip news was the introduction of Intel's new six-core Xeon 5600 chip, along with new servers based on the chip from Dell, HP, and IBM. While this isn't very surprising--we've known details about this 32nm version of the Westmere chip for some time--it does bring more cores to Intel's mainstream server market, which could be very important in some applications.
The new chip, known as Westmere-EP. is essentially the server and workstation version of the 32nm desktop chip called Gulftown, which Intel introduced last week. It will be out in both four- and six-core versions, supporting 8 and 12 threads respectively, with the six-core version running up to 3.33 GHz. PCMag has more details here. Essentially, this is the replacement for the Xeon 5500 series that came out a year ago. Indeed, this should work as a drop-in replacement for those chips.
This is not the first x86-based six-core server processor. Intel last year introduced a 45nm six-core chip under the Xeon 7400 brand (called Dunnington), but that is aimed at much more expensive, multisocket servers. (Its replacement, a 45nm 8-core chip known as Nehalem-EX, was announced more than a year ago and is slated to be out this month.)
Perhaps more important, AMD has been shipping its six-core Opteron chip, Istanbul, since last June, and that's been available in a variety of servers, including some at very competitive prices. AMD's plans include a six-core chip called Lisbon for single and dual-socket servers and a dual-die version with up to 12 cores called Magny-Cours for two- and four-socket servers, and this too is slated to be out "by the end of the quarter."
Since the lower-end Xeon family represents a larger part of the server market than either the 7400 series or the Opteron, it's safe to assume that today's announcement will bring six-core computing to a much larger group of server users than before.
So what's the big deal with multiple cores in servers? Well, on desktops you can argue a lot about the benefit of multi-core computing, as a lot of applications don't really take a lot of advantage of multiple cores. It helps in multitasking, of course, and in some higher-end applications, but not for most individual applications.
But in servers, it's a different story: Many of the primary things that companies are doing on standard servers, ranging from e-commerce to virtualization, can take direct and immediate advantage of more cores. In that sense, a single server with two or four six-core servers might take the place of multiple older single-core servers.
Intel and AMD are taking different approaches here. Intel is focusing on multithreading (where each core handles two simultaneous thread) and AMD on more cores and on price/performance.
In both cases, the companies. as well as the server makers that create systems based on their chips. see big advantages to more cores. It seems that the performance advantages of this year's servers over last year's will be substantial.
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