Intel's Nehalem Takes Center Stage at IDF

From laptops to servers, Intel shows off the future of its processor lines.

SAN FRANCISCO – Intel Tuesday offered a look inside its next generation of processors, the Nehalem family, with new details and demos during the Intel Developer Forum (IDF). Nehalem was the code name for the processor, which Intel recently dubbed officially as the Core i7.

The Penryn family of processors fades into the sunset with Dunnington, the six-core Xeon server processor that Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) began shipping to OEM partners in July. It will appear in systems in September. The official product name is Xeon 7400.

Penryn is certainly going out in a big way. Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise group, showed some record high benchmarks, including the first TPCC benchmark to break the one million mark for transaction processing. An IBM eight-socket server scored 1.2 million in a TPC-C benchmark, a means of measuring server performance by measuring how many online transactions can be performed in a set period.

Gelsinger also discussed the improved virtualization technology in Nehalem. One of the major problems for virtual environments is the bottleneck of I/O, which consumes a lot of CPU power as the CPU plays traffic cop. Nehalem addressed this with VT-d, a direct path to the hardware that lets the virtualization software share physical devices directly, reducing CPU overhead.

Power management on Nehalem will be better than today's systems because the old gate technology that attempted to shut off unused cores was lacking. It didn't address voltage leak, which is the main cause of power drain.

Nehalem's Integrated Power Gate technology will take voltage down to zero when the core is idle. A "power switch" was built into the chip silicon to handle this. Each core is handled independently, similar to AMD's Phenom and Quad Core Opteron. Gelsinger noted that the one million transistors in the Integrated Power Gate "is more than my 486!"

Intel did disclose one major new customer: NASA. The Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., has begun construction of a massive supercomputer based on Itanium chips called Pleiades. At the time of the announcement, NASA was unsure if it would use Nehalem, but Gelsinger said the chip would be used to build out what will be a one petaflop supercomputer. The Nehalem architecture is not planned for Itanium, but NASA has said the Pleiades supercomputer could handle a mix of processors.

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