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Server makers are lining up a host of new and enhanced systems armed with Intel’s new “Woodcrest” Xeon processor, a chip built on a new architecture that promises better performance coupled with greater energy efficiency.

Intel initially said the Xeon 5100 family—based on Intel’s new Core microarchitecture—would be released in the third quarter. However, earlier this month the giant chip maker pushed up the date to June 26 in an attempt to take back momentum from rival Advanced Micro Devices, which has gained market share over the past couple of years based on the strength of the performance-per-watt capabilities of its Opteron processors.

At the lauch event for the chips in New York on June 26, Pag Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group, said Woodcrest will now dominate the market in terms of both performance and power efficiency.

“Every aspect is leading,” Gelsinger said. “Not just little bit ahead, way ahead. There is no gap for question. … This chip just rocks. Fabulous as far its capabilities and its performance. It’s a good year for Intel when we have a new process. It’s a good year for Intel when we have a new micro-architecture. It;s a good year for Intel when we have a new platform. This year we have all three.”

Beyond its capabilities, the platform’s stability and reliability are key, Gelsinger said, particularly as Intel gears up for quad-core chips next year and the eventual move to 45-nanometer manufacturing processes.

“It’s not just about a fabulous CPU, but all things built into the platform that make it a compelling solution to the end user,” he said. “The Bensley platform is a platform with longevity. … If platform upgrade needs bandwidth in the bus, we have bandwidth to burn.”

Intel expects the platform to satisfy the next four generations of chips, probably about three years into the future, said Steve Dallman, Intel’s director of American distribution and channel sales and marketing.

Various OEMs say the Xeon 5100 chips put Intel solidly back in the game. Officials with Dell say the new chips will help its PowerEdge servers improve performance by up to 152 percent while lowering power consumption by as much as 25 percent.

Dell, of Round Rock, Texas, is one of a number of OEMs rolling out new or upgraded servers with the Woodcrest chips. Dell is looking to the processors as a key part of the server maker’s aggressive push to become the leader in the price-performance-per-watts category in the second half of the year, according to Jay Parker, director of worldwide marketing for the PowerEdge server line.

Earlier this month, Dell rolled out three new PowerEdge systems and introduced its new 1955 blade server armed first with the dual-core “Dempsey” Xeon chip, which is based on the older architecture, and now with Woodcrest.

Dell on June 26 joined other systems makers, from Hewlett-Packard and IBM to Gateway, Rackable Systems and SGI, in rolling out servers with the new chip line.

Intel is delivering the first of three new dual-core processors it aims to use to win back bragging rights and market share. The Santa Clara, Calif., chip maker will offer a range of Xeons, including 2GHz, 2.33GHz and 2.66GHz models (5130, 5140 and 5150, respectively), which consume about 65 watts of power. Its 3GHz Xeon DP5160 chip will use about 80 watts, Intel officials have said. Its previous generation of chips, the Xeon DP 5000 series, use 95 watts to 130 watts, and AMD’s Opteron is in the 95-watt range.

The arrival of the Xeon 5100 series, which Intel says offers far more computing power for each watt of energy consumed, comes at a time when concern about server energy consumption and the rising cost of electricity is growing among senior IT managers. But aside from signaling a new focus on energy efficiency, the new chips also show a more competitive Intel, executives have said.

Woodcrest is “showing tremendous performance, even exceeding our own engineering goals,” Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the Digital Enterprise Group and co-GM of Intel’s Server Platforms Group, said during an analyst briefing June 6.

Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata, said Woodcrest makes Intel competitive once again in the volume server space. How that plays out as Intel and AMD move forward with quad-core chips is unclear, but for now, Intel has made a good step forward, said Haff, in Nashua, N.H.

“It’s a pretty significant advance forward for Intel,” he said. “They’ve been trailing AMD in terms of performance, and Woodcrest does put them back on the same playing field.”

The release of Woodcrest gives Intel a dual play in the server platform play—best of breed and best in price, Gelsinger said.

“The real power of Dempsey [a dual-core Xeon chip that started shipping in the first quarter], now that Woodcrest lineup is here, is it allows me to take Dempsey as the price performance leader,” he said. “I now have a street fighter in that market. I have more price leveragability.”

Intel’s Xeon server chips have lagged Opteron in power and performance and, as a result, Intel has lost share in the server chip segment of the market. Opteron claimed just over 22 percent of the server x86 processor market in the first quarter of 2006, up from 16.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2005. AMD also held the line on its overall share during the first quarter, after gaining almost four points against Intel during the fourth quarter of 2005, according to Mercury Research figures.

Click here to read more about what Intel is doing to rebound after its recent lackluster performances.

With the majority of the Xeon DP 5100 line arriving at 65 watts, the chips will use less power than originally estimated. But Intel cautioned IT managers from basing their buying decisions solely on chip power consumption numbers. Skaugen encouraged IT managers to instead look at the total amount of power a given machine draws from an electrical socket.

This watts-at-the-wall measurement, he said, is more accurate than adding up chip specs as it reflects a server’s behavior as it would act under different loads, Skaugen said.

Next Page: Analysts agree.

Some analysts agree. Although Opteron power totals are lower on paper, Thomas Weisel Partners, in a June 22 report, said it found in a test that two Opteron systems drew more power at the wall than an Intel Woodcrest machine.

The two chip makers’ approaches differ in that Opteron includes a memory controller for DDR DRAM (double data rate dynamic RAM), while Woodcrest chips, like other Intel processors, use discrete controllers and FB-DIMMs (fully-buffered dual inline memory modules). FB-DIMMS use standard DDR2 but embed a buffer chip in each module to boost performance. FB-DIMMs thus use more power—roughly nine to 10 watts of power—compared with non-buffered DDR modules, which use about 4.5 watts.

Tests by Tomas Weisel Partners shown in the report found than the Woodcrest system, an Intel Star Lake white box with a 3GHz Xeon 5160 and four 1GB FB-DIMMs, used less power than a Sun Microsystems SunFire x4200 with an Opteron 285 processor running at 2.6GHz and 4GB of DDR and a Monarch system, constructed from a Tyan Thunder K8S Pro motherboard, Opteron 285 and 4GB of RAM.

When under load, running SunGuard’s Adaptive Analytics Application, the Woodcrest machine used 243 watts, 75 watts fewer than the Sun machine’s 318 watts, for one, the report said.

Intel has conducted similar tests and trumpeted similar results.

AMD isn’t sitting idle, however. The chip maker plans to deliver a new version of its Opteron chip, which offers redesigned circuitry and a new DDR2 memory controller, in the third quarter. AMD says the combination will offer greater energy efficiency.

Server makers and their customers are benefiting from the competition between the two chip makers. Dell server users can now order the PowerEdge 1950, 2950 and 2900 servers, and the 1955 blade systems, with Xeon 5100 chips. Dell later this year also will start shipping a four-way server powered by Opteron, the first AMD-based system from the company.

HP in May introduced new and enhanced ProLiant servers using the Xeon 5100, and will start shipping those June 26. HP also has a full line of Opteron-based ProLiant systems. IBM is bringing its PowerExecutive technology—which monitors the power usage in a server or group of servers—to its System x and BladeCenter servers for free. The two-year-old technology will complement the power efficiency offered in Woodcrest, according to IBM officials.

The company says the new systems—the x3650, x3550 and x3400 and BladeCenter HS21—will see up to a 163 percent performance increase over current servers.

Gateway in the fall will offer new 1U (1.75-inch) and 2U (3.5-inch) rack and tower servers with the 5100 processors.

SGI is using the new chip as part of an initiative it hopes will help bring the company out of bankruptcy. SGI, which has struggled in recent years, is restructuring its business and product line.

The company is unveiling the Altix XE, a family of Linux-based servers and cluster offerings powered by Woodcrest 5150 CPUs.

In addition, SGI is launching its Altix 450 system, a blade offering powered by Intel’s upcoming dual-core “Montecito” Itanium 2 chip, due later this summer. SGI officials say the new system will offer up to 2.5 times the performance of its current Altix 350 but will cost less. Customers will be able to configure the new 450s to optimize density, I/O or memory. In addition, SGI is equipping its current Altix 4700 blades with the Montecito chip for the same price as the current server running on single-core Itaniums.

Rackable is introducing its C1000 line of 1U, 2U or 3U (5.25-inch) rack-mount servers that can come with the company’s DC-power technology.

John Hazard contributed to this report.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include comments from Pag Gelsinger.

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