The introduction of the latest Intel 32-bit server processor represents a landmark in server design, giving users a migration path to 64-bit computing.
As well as being 3.4 times faster than its predecessor, the Xeon processor offers several enhancements which could prolong the life of 32-bit PC servers. Some experts believe it could mean the Itanium 64-bit architecture is necessary only for niche applications.
The processor is Intel’s latest attempt to make its chips viable in the datacentre.
Even though Intel has made strides into datacentre computing, the Unix operating system is still the preferred platform for datacentres, running on Risc-based servers such as IBM’s Power, Sun’s Sparc and Hewlett-Packard’s PA-Risc products. However, Meta Group analyst Rakesh Kumar said, "Users are asking why they need Unix Risc technology."
Kumar believes the new Xeon will be a compelling option for datacentre deployments, even as a replacement for 64-bit Unix systems. "HP’s [Xeon] server is incredibly powerful. Most users would be able to run their datacentres on this rather than [64-bit] Power5 or Itanium-based servers," he said.
Although HP is still shipping PA-Risc-based Unix servers, its strategy is to migrate users onto 64-bit Itanium systems. Kumar urged users to hold off this migration and consider 32-bit Xeon instead. "Itanium will offer a performance advantage but it will not be a significant advantage given that most people are on 32-bit systems," he said.
The main reason for considering 64-bit Itanium was previously 64-bit memory support, since power users of 32-bit systems were hitting an upper limit of 4Gbytes installed Ram.
A key benefit of the new Xeon is support for Extended Memory 64 technology, which can be used to configure servers with up to 1Tbyte of Ram. When systems become available, users should see a big improvement in the performance of database applications, as the database is able to run within memory. This cuts out the performance degredation of traditional database designs, where data is accessed via hard disc storage.
Other improvements include mainframe-style cooling; the ability to slow down the system to reduce power consumption; and PCI Express, a new bus architecture to support "hot pluggable" peripherals, where storage and network cards can be added without powering down the server.
IBM is among several server manufacturers that have introduced machines based on the new Xeon chip. The company said it allows more servers to be installed in a datacentre.
As the number of servers in a datacentre increases, the amount of cooling required grows. The Xeon runs at a lower voltage and can be slowed down to reduce the temperature when needed.
What is PCI Express?
PCI Express represents a departure from the design of the PCI I/O bus used on current PC servers, which is based on a parallel architecture.
Alan Priestley, Intel’s enterprise solutions marketing manager, said that because it was parallel, PCI put a limit on the number of peripherals that could be plugged in. "PCI Express is a serial bus, so it is much easier to add peripherals," he said.
Priestley said PCI Express was also faster, offering bidirectional data throughput of 4gbps, compared with AGP8x, the fastest PCI bus, which offered 8gbps, but only in one direction. The result is much better data throughput.