Introducing Intel's Xeon X5680
Back in 2005, Intel changed the trajectory of desktop computing by introducing its first dual-core Pentium processors. Having realized that it was fighting an uphill battle to try pushing frequencies beyond 10 GHz, the company shifted strategies and put parallelism in it crosshairs.
The thing was that servers and workstations were already employing multi-socket configurations to get work done faster. At the time, Irwindale-based Xeons were getting their behinds handed to them by AMD’s Opteron. Although these dropped into dual-processor boards, they were still single-core chips, aided slightly by the same Hyper-Threading technology we know today.
So, while the adoption of threaded software has seemed slow on the desktop (we enjoy cursing apps like iTunes and WinZip, still stuck in the single-threaded dark ages), business-class workstation machines have enjoyed more elegant utilization of multi-core CPUs for a long, long time. As we debate about the value of a six-core CPU versus quad-core models in a gaming box, the workstation guys are trying to get as much horsepower as possible.
Just imagine the cost savings of going from a single-core, dual-socket system to a dual-core, single-socket box. Or how about the performance gain shifting from a single-core, dual-socket platform to a dual-core, dual-socket configuration? That’s two times the processing resources in the same class of hardware. Buying motherboards and CPUs only gets more expensive as you start looking at four- and eight-way boxes.
And to think, today we have six-core Hyper-Threaded chips making 12 logical processors available to operating systems like Windows 7—all from a single socket.
Intel’s Return To Competition
As the hardware gets more powerful, software adapts to take advantage, necessitating even more capable hardware. Gotta love the viscous circle, right?
Last year, Intel launched its Xeon 5500-series CPUs for dual-socket servers and workstations. Then-vice-president Pat Gelsinger characterized the introduction as the most important in more than a decade. And while I’m not one to parrot marketing messages, this one was absolutely true for the company.
The architectural advantage AMD carved out for itself using HyperTransport was especially pronounced in multi-socket machines, while Intel relied on shared front side bus bandwidth for processor communication. With the Xeon 5500-series, Intel addressed its weaknesses through the QuickPath Interconnect, adding Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost to further improve performance in parallelized and single-threaded applications alike.
Of course, the wheels of progress continue to spin. This year’s shift to 32 nm manufacturing gave Intel the opportunity to add complexity to its SMB-oriented processor lineup without altering its thermal properties. Enter the Xeon 5600 family, sporting up to six physical cores and 12 MB of shared L3 cache per processor—all within the same 130 W envelope established by the Xeon 5500-series.
Take note: you aren’t going to see any AMD CPUs in this piece. When we approached the company early on about participating in a workstation-based comparison to the latest Xeon CPUs, the company conceded that it really isn’t a player in the workstation market right now. Part of being competitive there means pairing competent processors with at least somewhat-modern core logic. And while Intel’s Xeon 5500- and 5600-series chips have the 5520 and 5500 chipset to lean on, AMD’s options for workstation-class chipsets are a little sparser. The company does have its SR56x0 lineup and SP5100 south bridge (and Tyan even sells dual-socket motherboards based on that platform). For one reason or another, though, we didn’t get much interest from AMD. It’s a shame, too. Back when the Athlon 64 launched, its exclusive 64-bit architecture was considered a big win for the digital audio workstation folks.
At any rate, we have plenty of hardware to compare here, including a pair of Xeon 5600s, two Xeon 5500s, and a Core i7-980X that’ll demonstrate where and when a second processor will actually buy extra performance in a workstation-oriented load.