Intel enters high-end market with Xeon debut

400-MHz processor to give RISC a run for its money

By James Niccolai and Elinor Mills

July  1998
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Santa Clara, CA (July 1, 1998) -- Accompanied by the usual abundance of vendor support, Intel introduced this week its new Pentium II Xeon processor, designed to run midrange and higher end servers and workstations.

The chip's larger and faster Level 2 cache, 100-MHz system bus, and multiprocessing capabilities allow systems to handle demanding applications, including online transaction processing, corporate data warehousing, digital content creation, and electronic and mechanical design automation, Intel officials said.

"This technology will enable systems based on Intel's architecture to extend further into the enterprise, where Intel has not been before," said John Minor, vice president and general manager of Intel's enterprise server group, speaking at a launch event held Monday at Intel's campus here in Santa Clara, CA.

Specifically, Intel is targeting the market for high-end workstations and servers that traditionally run on proprietary RISC-type processors from companies like Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. Intel's share of those markets has grown in the past three years at a much higher compound growth rate than that of non-Intel type chips, and Xeon will help Intel accelerate that pattern, Minor said.

Intel officials showed off the performance of the new 400-MHz processor by using it to run digital content creation and computer-aided design programs. By a variety of benchmark tests selected by Intel, Xeon outpaces RISC, SPARC, and MIPS chips at those applications, Minor said.

One analyst who attended Monday's event said the price and performance of Xeon-based systems displayed by vendors was impressive, but stressed that Intel will have to maintain that price-performance advantage as competing vendors improve on their own products.

"When you compare your new stuff with other people's systems that have already been out there for a year it's not really fair," said Martin Reynolds, vice president of technology assessment at Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, CA. "The question is, how long can they maintain the performance lead we saw?"

Intel released two versions of the processor, both running at 400 MHz and including either 512 kilobytes or 1 megabyte of Level 2 cache. The company plans to release a 450-MHz version of the chip later this year which will include 2 megabytes of Level 2 cache, Intel officials said.

Intel also rolled out two chipsets: the 440GX AGPset for systems with one and two processors, which offers 2 gigabytes RAM and the AGP graphics port adapter; and the 450NX PCIset, for servers with four processors or more, which offers up to 8 gigabytes RAM and multiple 32-bit and 64-bit PCI buses.

While both chipsets are ready to ship, Intel officials acknowledged last week that a glitch -- they called it an "erratum" -- in Xeon can cause systems using the 450NX chipset to malfunction. Intel said it will fix the glitch within a month, but until then system makers will have to hold off on releasing servers with four or more processors.

"If Intel is indicating they can fix the problem in a month, then it's probably not such a big deal," Dataquest's Reynolds said.


Vendors ready Xeon offerings
IBM Corp. was among a number of vendors who said they will take advantage of Xeon's multi-processing capabilities once the bug has been ironed out. Its new Netfinity 7000 M10 server includes four Xeon 4 processors and up to 8 gigabytes of EDO memory, and is scheduled to ship in September, said Alex Yost, worldwide product marketing manager for Netfinity.

Yost and Intel officials claimed the bug in the 450NX chipset has not delayed the release of multiprocessor servers because most vendors had not planned to release the systems immediately anyway.

Meanwhile, other vendors said they will take advantage of the 440GX chipset to release workstations over the next month. Gateway 2000 Inc. demonstrated a machine targeted at the midrange workstation markets that runs on a single 400-MHz Xeon processor. Priced at $5,500, the system can accommodate an additional processor for users who want more computing power, and is due to ship July 13, said Louis Columbus, senior manager for workstation marketing at Gateway.

The Pentium II Xeon processor features: 0.25 micron P6 microarchitecture core with Dynamic Execution operating at 400 MHz; 512 kilobytes and 1-megabyte L2 cache options; Extended Server Memory Architecture that enables use of more than 4 gigabytes of memory in servers; addressable memory support up to 64 gigabytes; and new system management features via System Management bus. It also features a Dual Independent Bus which has 400-MHz L2 cache bus, operating at the same speed as the processor core, and 100-MHz transactional System Bus with 100-MHz SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory) and EDO (extended data output) RAM.

In 1,000 unit quantities, the 400-MHz Pentium II Xeon processor with 512-kilobyte L2 cache costs $1,124 it costs $2,836 for the 1-megabyte L2 cache versions.

The Xeon processors and chipsets are all available immediately, although Intel will not certify systems using the 450NX chipset until the erratum has been fixed, Intel said. The boxed Intel Pentium II Xeon processors with supporting motherboards for both servers and workstations will be available to resellers and integrators later this year.

Among other Xeon-related announcements were:

  1. Intergraph Computer Systems announced plans to incorporate the new Xeon processors into its Windows NT-based TDZ2000 ViZual Workstations for 3-D and systems engineering computing that will be announced in the third quarter. Intel also selected Intergraph's 3DPro 3400 graphics card to power a stage demo at its Xeon launch despite the pending litigation between the two firms. Intergraph sued Intel last year alleging Intel coerced it into handing over certain technology patents by cutting off advance Intel product information. A judge ordered Intel to share its information with Intergraph and Intel has appealed that injunction.

  2. Hewlett-Packard Co. announced that it will add a new high-end HP NetServer system running Xeon before the end of the year. Customers will be able to purchase current NetServer LX systems and upgrade to the new Xeon-based systems.

  3. IBM also said its IntelliStation family of NT workstations will be expanded to include a new line based on Xeon to be available in the third quarter. In addition, IBM announced plans to open three new Application Solution Centers with Intel by the end of the year. The centers -- in San Mateo, CA; Waltham, MA, and Hursley, England -- will help software developers optimize their applications for Xeon and Merced chips.

  4. Phoenix Technologies Ltd. announced that its MultiProcessor/Server BIOS (basic input/output system), NoteBIOS and Phoenix BIOS can be used with all Pentium II processors, including the new Xeon, and associated chipsets.

  5. Pandesic LLC, the Internet joint venture between Intel and SAP AG, demonstrated at Intel's Xeon launch an electronic business system running the Xeon. The demo featured the Web site of DVD Express which sells digital video disc movies and software online.


    --James Niccolai and Elinor Mills are correspondents with the IDG News Service

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