Intel today unveiled its latest and greatest Nehalem chip for servers (now known as the Xeon 5500 series), setting off a round of announcements and articles comparing technical specifications across server vendors. And at 2.93 GHz (with certain tweaks it can get up to 3.33 Ghz), indeed, the chip is screamingly fast. Which is all well and good, but if you’re still unclear as to what all the fuss is about, we’ve broken down for you three areas where Intel’s Nehalem chip changes the game.
Better performance per watt: Just like a Ferrari with 12 horses cylinders will consume more gas than a Civic, high-power server chips have never been shy about gulping electricity. But with Nehalem, this is improving. While the processor can consume up to 95 watts in server applications, when measured in terms of what it can do with that electricity — a metric known as “performance per watt” — Nehalem is plenty sexy. Server vendors from HP to Rackable have talked about how this particular metric (when tied to the cost of the chips) drives large-volume server purchases, which are becoming a bigger chunk of sales as companies like Google or Facebook build out their infrastructure.
Faster access to memory: One of the issues with multicore processors is that the cores can all process information really fast, but eventually they have to get more information to process from the memory. Under Intel’s previous architecture, they had to access that memory outside of the chip — and do it one by one. Intel has addressed this by including integrated memory on the latest Nehalem chip, and a transport protocol Intel calls QuickPath Interconnect. The integrated memory on the chip stores more information closer to the processor and the QPI manages the flow of information between the cores. Incidentally, AMD first offered this in 2003 with HyperTransport.
The bottom line is that by attacking the memory bandwidth problem instead of throwing more power-hungry cores at it, certain workloads can now run faster.
It has a future beyond servers: As part of the new server announcement, Intel also announced a line of Nehalem-based embedded processors for use in communications markets. As an Ars Technica article notes, the Nehalem architecture is so modular that it can be configured for a variety of different uses — in other words, beyond just workstations and servers.