Intel 7500 Series "Nehalem-EX" Xeons
Posted on: 03/30/2010 10:57 PM

The 4-socket (plus) server market has not been an area that I've dealt with much in the past. 2CPU has typically focused our reviews and articles on the 2-socket space and the associated platforms because, well, that is what we had access to. That makes today a big day for me because the subject of today's article is Intel's latest entry into the 4-socket (or more) server space, the Xeon 7500 series Nehalem-EX. We'll only be looking at Nehalem-EX in a 2-socket configuration today, but I'll get into that more later.

For a while now, the 7xxx series Xeons have been the bridge between the 2-socket Xeons for workstations and servers (5xxx series) and the big iron Itanium systems. They have historically been the black sheep of the Xeon family as well, typically lagging behind the 5xxx series Xeons in architecture and platform updates by a generation or more, while not offering the reliability (RAS) features of the higher-end Itaniums. While that still holds true with the new 7500 series Xeons, the gap is closing on both ends of the spectrum.

Xeon 7500 Series "Nehalem-EX" Processor

Nehalem-EX Core
Nehalem-EX Core: 8 cores (16 threads) and 24mb L3 cache

As you can tell by its name, the Nehalem-EX is based on the 45nm Nehalem architecture. Nehalem was the first Xeon to get an on-die memory controller, as well as a host of other features like QPI, Turbo, SMT, new instruction sets, improved power managment and a bevy of new and improved virtualization enhancments. Where the original Nehalem was limited to four hyper-threaded cores (8 threads) and two QPI links per socket, Nehalem-EX is rocking eight hyper-threaded cores (16 threads) and four QPI links per socket... In anywhere from 2 to 256 socket configurations.

Here are the bullet points:

  • Nehalem micro-architecture
    - Turbo Boost Technology
    - Hyper-threading Technology
    - Intel Virtualization Technologies
  • Up to 8 cores per socket
  • 4 QPI links per socket
  • Up to 24mb L3 cache
  • 16 DIMM slots per socket - 64 DIMM slots and 1tb memory support for 4 sockets
  • Scaling from 2 to 256 sockets
  • CPU TDP: 130w, 105w or 95w
  • Advanced RAS features

Xeon 7500 Series "Boxboro-EX" Chipset

Boxboro-EX Core

A major new processor architecture can't be complete without a new chipset and platform to go along with it. So to leverage all of the new processor features, Intel is also introducing the 7500 series chipset, code named Boxboro-EX to the x86 server market. Since the days of the front-side bus and chipset-based memory controllers are gone, Boxboro-EX is a basically just an I/O hub, but it is also key to the scalability of the 7500 series Xeon and Itanium platforms.

As I mentioned previously, Boxboro-EX acts as a bridge between the QPI links and I/O devices. Each Boxboro-EX controller has two 6.4GT/s QPI links and supports up to 36 lanes of PCIe 2.0 for flexible I/O options. It is also one of the main reasons that the 7500 series platform can scale to 256 sockets. Perhaps more importantly, the chipset is the last piece of the "enhanced reliability" puzzle.

Xeon 7500 Series RAS Features

Nehalem-EX RAS Features

You will notice that I've talked a lot about the RAS, or "enhanced reliability" features of the Xeon 7500 platform. Intel has been making a big deal about the enhanced reliability of this platform, and they have good reason. Historically it was the RAS features that really seperated the "commodity" x86 servers from the "big iron" RISC boxes... With Nehalem-EX, that gap is narrowing to the point that some RISC shops are going to be seriously looking into this x86 solution when upgrade time rolls around.

One thing I need to put out here before we go any farther is that Intel is going after specific market segments with the 7500 series Xeon. The first two segments, Mission Critical Business Processing (DB, ERP, CRN and batch) and Decision Support (data warehousing and business intelligence) have been traditionally dominated by the big-iron. The third segment, the one nearest and dearest to me, is virtualization.

If you want screaming fast workstation or server performance for a specific task, Nehalem-EX is probably not for you. If you need an expandable platform with oodles of memory, plenty of processing power and enhanced reliability features, this might be just what the Doctor ordered.

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