Intel Launches New Six-Core Xeons, Hopes To Sweep Upgrade Cycles

Intel announced its new Xeon 5600 series today in a move the company claims is great for server admins, businesses concerned about security, world peace, and puppies. (We made those last two up). The new chips (codenamed Gulftown) are basically identical to the ultra-high-end Core i7-980X that Intel launched recently, with the exception that Xeons are MP capable. Intel claims that the new six-core processors are up to 50 percent faster than their quad-core, 45nm counterparts while remaining within the same 130W TDP envelope. Although, low-power 60W variants are also coming, as are 40W quad-cores.

"The Intel Xeon Processor 5600 series will be the backbone of mainstream computing environments," said Kirk Skaugen, vice president and general manager of the Intel Architecture Group. "New security capabilities will boost the confidence of IT managers. Improvements in performance, server virtualization and power consumption will foster productivity and efficiency for a broad range of applications ranging from data transactions to workstations performing medical imaging and digital prototyping."

The Intel Xeon 5600 series includes Intel AES-NI, a new set of instructions first introduced last year. These instructions accelerate AES performance to enable faster data encryption and decryption for a wide range of applications such as database encryption features, full disk encryption and secure internet transactions. We've yet to see many real-world programs or applications that can take advantage of the new AES hardware; presumably we'll see more software companies opting to include support throughout 2010.

Any way you slice it, the X5600 series is an impressive step up.

The major theme of the refresh is efficiency, both in terms of power-per-watt and with regard to server rack consolidation. According to Intel, a business that moves from a 2005-era Xeon to a modern 5600-class processor can consolidate a 5U server into a 1U, cut energy costs by 85 percent, and save $120,769. The chart below is a bit staggering once you realize how the "Then" and "Now" line up.

We don't think Intel is cherry-picking here—the comparison almost certainly is that bad—but 2005 is a banner year for any sort of performance/efficiency argument Intel might want to make. The servers Intel is comparing against were built on the company's 90nm Prescott processor, which happens to be the architecture that destroyed Intel's long-term plans for NetBurst. Systems of this era were also using FB-DIMMs, which drew significantly more power than standard DDR2 (which draws more than the low-power DDR3 that Gulftown uses).

If you're actually stuck with a server room full of 90nm Xeons, then the upgrade path probably is this good. Those of you with different loadouts simply need to be aware that Intel's 5100-series Woodcrest-based Xeons + FB-DIMMs were a high-water point of suck for the company. (We are, of course, referring to power consumption). Gulftown's performance increases may be compelling at any speed, but your annual energy expenditure savings will depend on just how old the server room is.

Gulftown's arrival could push down prices on current 45nm Nehalem-based Xeons and cause problems for AMD. At present, Sunnyvale's six-core Istanbul processor at 2.6GHz compares fairly well against the older 45nm Core 2-based Xeon E5450 (quad core, 3GHz) and the Nehalem-derived X5500 Xeon (quad core, 2.66GHz); benchmarks show it keeping pace or surpassing both chips thanks to its additional cores. If Intel prices Gulftown aggressively, that's going to change; AMD doesn't have a chip in play that can match Gulftown and it won't until the eight-core and 12-core flavors of its Magny-Cours launch.