An Integrated Memory Controller
Intel has taken its time catching up to AMD on this point. But as is often the case, when the giant does something, he takes a giant step. Where Barcelona had two 64-bit memory controllers supporting DDR2, Intel’s top-of-the-line configuration will include three DDR3 memory controllers. Hooked up to DDR3-1333, which Nehalem will also support, that adds up to a bandwidth of 32 GB/s in certain configurations. But the advantage of an integrated memory controller isn’t just a matter of bandwidth. It also substantially lowers memory access latency, which is just as important, considering that each access costs several hundred cycles. Though the latecy reduction achieved by an integrated memory controller will be appreciable in the context of desktop use, it is multi-socket server configurations that will get the full benefit of the more scalable architecture. Before, while bandwidth remained constant when CPUs were added, now each new CPU added will increase bandwidth, since each processor has its own local memory space.
Obviously this is not a miracle solution. This is a Non Uniform Memory Access (NUMA) configuration, which means that memory accesses can be more or less costly, depending on where the data is in memory. An access to local memory obviously has the lowest latency and the highest bandwidth; conversely, an access to remote memory requires a transit via the QPI link, which reduces performance.
The impact on performance is difficult to predict, since it’ll be dependent on the application and the operating system. Intel says the performance hit for remote access is around 70% in terms of latency, and that bandwidth can be reduced by half compared to local access. According to Intel, even with remote access via the QPI link, latency will still be lower than on earlier processors where the memory controller was on the northbridge. However, those considerations only apply to server applications, and for a long time now they’ve already been designed with the specifics of NUMA configurations in mind.