Woodcrest launches Intel into a new era

Santa Clara (CA) - Intel today introduced the first processor based on its "Core" architecture: The Xeon 5100 rings in the beginning of the end of the Netburst architecture - a power hungry technology that was introduced more than five years ago and brought the company down to its knees. Core's mission is to restore Intel's competitiveness and lay the foundation for the firm's future.

Missing or ignoring trends in the fast-paced IT industry can have dramatic consequences. Intel did ignore a trend of power consumption awareness, which was first highlighted by Transmeta. Back then, Transmeta's engineers said that even the fastest processor is useless if it drains a battery to fast or runs too hot. The focus on processor speed and Intel's marketing resources may have out-powered Transmeta a few years ago, but Intel underestimated the impact of the trend and AMD, which managed to claim performance and efficiency crowns in desktop and server segments: Seemingly unchallenged, AMD has been gaining market shares from Intel for some time - and Intel has been stuck with an architecture that made as much sense as gas-guzzling SUV in the midst of an oil crisis.

Core, which launches today in the shape of the the Xeon 5100 series (Woodcrest core) has the task to change perceptions and to bring Intel back on track. The company refers to the launch of Core as the "dawn of energy-efficient performance" - and, at least compared to Intel and its predecessor, the claim is certainly appropriate. While the current Netburst-based Xeon 5000 dual-cores are rated at a thermal design power of 130 watts (FSB1066 versions), most Woodcrest versions are rated at 65 watts. The high-end 3.0 GHz checks in at 80 watts and a lower-power 2.33 GHz version with a 40 watt will ship in Q3.

Pure power consumption or pure performance isn't the name of the game anymore - the key discipline that will measure the value of processors in the foreseeable time goes by the name "performance-per-watt." And Intel claims that Woodcrest outperforms the fastest single-core Xeon (Irwindale core) by 3x in this discipline. If you are interested in just performance, then Intel promises that Woodcrest is about 52% faster than the preceding dual-core Xeon with "Dempsey" core, which is claimed to be about 88% faster than the Irwindale single-core.

Intel's Core lineup: Woodcrest (server, Xeon 5100 series), Merom (mobile, Core 2 Duo T5000/T7000 series, scheduled to launch in Q3 2006) and Conroe (desktop, Core 2 Duo E4000/E6000 series, scheduled to launch on 23 July)

Given the importance of Core's mission and its claimed capability to achieve performance and power-efficiency leadership over its rival AMD, it isn't surprising that Intel doesn't choose modest words to describe the technology: "Simply put, the Core microarchitecture is a technical marvel that is driving a new era of power efficiency without compromising on what can only be described as eye-popping dual-core 64-bit performance," said Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group in a prepared statement.

Core's origin can be found in "Banias," Intel's Pentium M processor that has been developed under the direction of Mooly Eden, who is currently vice president and general manager of Intel's mobile Platforms Group. "Only" used in the Pentium M a few years ago, this advanced mobile architecture is now the foundation for Intel's mobile, desktop and server processors and is expected to bring in almost all of Intel's processor revenues at least through 2008. In this perspective, the upcoming mobile processor "Merom" (Core 2 Duo T5000/T7000 series) can be considered the "true" Core processor, while the new Xeon 5100 and the upcoming desktop processor "Conroe" (Core 2 Duo E4000/E6000 series) are derivates of the architecture that include fine tunings of Merom to address their target markets.

Mooly Eden is credited with creating and driving the development of Intel's new micro architecture

For example, as a drop-in processor for Intel's existing "Bensley" platform, the Xeon 5100 is - for now - the only version of Core that supports FSB1333 and the use of server-specific FB-DIMMs, which Intel says is a "faster and more reliable memory technology" (However, FB-DIMM also consumes more power than the standard DDR2 memory which it is based on.) The new Xeons also integrate Intel's virtualization technology VT), active server manager (AMT) and the firm's I/O acceleration technology (IOAT).

The new processor family launches in the following lineup:

  • Xeon DP 5110: 1.60 GHz, FSB1066, 4 MB L2 cache, $209
  • Xeon DP 5120: 1.86 GHz, FSB1066, 4 MB L2 cache, $256
  • Xeon DP 5130: 2.00 GHz, FSB1333, 4 MB L2 cache, $316
  • Xeon DP 5140: 2.33 GHz, FSB1333, 4 MB L2 cache, $455
  • Xeon DP 5150: 2.66 GHz, FSB1333, 4 MB L2 cache, $690
  • Xeon DP 5160: 3.00 GHz, FSB1333, 4 MB L2 cache, $851

Volume servers will be one of the most visible battlefields for AMD and Intel in the coming months: AMD will try to keep up its pace and Intel will do everything it can to slow AMD down and gain back lost revenues. And Intel isn't wasting any more time as it promises "this server family [...] to be the fastest-ramping product in the company's history."

There's a new set of cards on the table and prospective buyers of x86-based volume servers will have the chance to come up with new opportunities for their IT departments with lower-power and faster processors: As good as Woodcrest looks on paper (that includes its aggressive pricing as well), it won't deliver a slam dunk for Intel right away: IT managers will have to test how well the chip performs with certain applications and most likely come up with a case-by-case solution. Gartner's and IDC's market numbers for the rest of the year and 2007 will show if the chip is up to task and if it is able to convince fence-sitters and gain back customers that Netburst lost.

And don't count out AMD just yet: Intel's rival is preparing a new version of its Opteron processor for a rumored 1 August launch: "Socket F" will bring a reduction of thermal design power, support for DDR2 memory and a faster 3.0 GHz chip. AMD already claims that it will not only be faster than Woodcrest, but that it will consume less power as well.

Does it matter which processor is faster and consumes less power? To the average consumer, probably not. That question may even miss what is more significant: The current competitive environment will bring more progress to the micro processor industry in the next twelve months than we have seen in the past ten years. Whether you favor Intel or AMD, there are some truly innovative products coming your way.

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