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Power to the people
Intel's Core 2 architecture was first seen in mobile form on an Apple notebook and this week Intel unveiled it for servers in their Xeon 5100 series processors previously known as "Woodcrest". I look at what's the thinking behind Intel's new architecture that aims to power Intel's entire range of processors for the next few years.

Truth be told Intel's Core architecture can't arrive soon enough as Intel, by their own admission were being beaten the lucrative enterprise and desktop markets. Although holding strong through the Centrino branding in notebooks, Intel knew they had to change step and quickly. The Core 2 architecture is a radical change from Intel's past. The paradigm is now work smarter, not harder.

Yet to debut on the desktop, Intel have launched Core 2 first for notebooks and now for the enterprise sector in the form of dual core Xeons. The investment in servers made by medium and large businesses dwarfs most people's vision of cheap and cheerful desktops. So when one of Intel's Group marketing director Rick Skett, admits having a poor performer in this market you know something is really wrong. Intel wants Core 2 to address performance and efficiency in desktop, mobile and servers so one core fits all.

What makes Core 2 interesting is that it was designed using technology from Intel's highly successful mobile processors named "Napa". The primary goal with mobile processors is to maximise power per watt and this has been brought into the server and desktop arena. Although power consumption of desktops is something that has recently been thrust into the spotlight, it's importance in mobile and enterprise are well known and became a huge battleground for chip manufacturers.

The problem faced by any company who utilizes a datacenter (including UK Gamer) is the inability to fill rack cabinets with servers because the datacenter isn't able to provide enough power. In a full cabinet (known as a rack) there are 42 rack units, commonly abbreviated to "u". For reference, each "u" is about the same height as a CD-ROM drive or 5.25" drive. With more than half the rack being left empty it has a serious effect on the company's bottom line.

Unlike desktop machines, servers don't have video cards which consume 150+ watts of power, so the CPU is the main power draw (alongside hard disk drives). Intel's own studies have shown that server customers can end up paying more in electricity bills through the lifetime of the server than for it's initial purchase. Therefore Intel have coined a new efficiency term for servers, performance per watt per foot in their drive to push as many Xeons into a small a datacenter footprint as possible.

So how will Core 2 help? Based on a 65 nanometre process Intel are saying that they are able to fit two cores and draw exactly the same power as their previous single core processors. This fact was echoed by representatives from IBM and SGI although contradicted in the press release where Kirk Skaugen, VP of Intel's Server Platform Group states a 35% decrease in power.

In many ways Intel have actually taken one step back and two forward. Coupled to the new manufacturing process, more efficient design and by shaving the voltage required by the processor, a 35-50% decrease in power per core is achieved but surprisingly a 20% decrease in performance is attained as well. The decrease in itself is almost balanced out by the fact that each processor will have two cores.

For it's enterprise customers, Intel have embraced virtualization and multithreading. Virtualization has been gaining popularity as it allows the dedication of unused processor cycles to processes. Server administrators (this one included) have had their lives made easier by being able to run a host of operating systems in a virtual machine environment allowing testing and deployment of servers in double quick time. Picture being able to run Windows Vista Beta, FreeBSD, Linux, Windows NT 4.0 and Windows Server 2003 all on your Windows XP machine. That is exactly what virtualization allows you to do. Intel call this VT technology and coupled to their I/O acceleration, which aims to reduce the number of I/O operations by up to 40% provides hardware support for virtualization.

Multithreading is something Intel has been pushing heavily for some years. Although Hyperthreading was initially launched as a technology that would mean customers not requiring multi-core processors, it's limited success has meant Intel almost doing a u-turn on their multi-core strategy. Nevertheless, Intel still work closely with developers to optimize applications for multithreaded environments, something that will aid both Intel and AMD customers. This is typically done at the code and compiler level. Skett proudly stated that Intel will be to market with multi-core processors by the end of 2006. Most likely that will be in the form of Xeons rather than desktop parts. AMD themselves have promised a quad-core variant of their Opteron processor, but haven't committed to a launch date yet.

There's no doubt that Core 2 is an improvement and a step up from previous generations of Intel technology. Skett on more than one occasion admitted to the fact that Intel had fallen behind and providing graphic evidence of the seriousness posed by the threat of their competitors (chiefly AMD) moved the Xeon 5100 series launch forward by over six months. What's most interesting is that Intel looked at power efficiency as the primary goal when designing the Core 2 architecture, even making sacrifices in outright speed per core in order to be more efficient in the long run.

The long term vision may also have benefits some years from now. When Intel launched it's previous architecture, Netburst it was designed to provide excellent performance when it reached the 5GHz+ barrier (hence the long pipelines). The translation from design board to manufacturing plant meant Intel found themselves not being able to manufacture profitably, processors based on Netburst at anything close to 5GHz. In the last year Intel's desktop processors have been known for their abilities to power Finnish Saunas rather than Microsoft's operating systems. Designing an architecture which manages power frugally may work out to Intel's benefit two or three years down the line and not just here and now. Those long pipelines are no where to be found in Core 2, going from the 31-stage pipeline in the latest Netburst processors down to 14-stage in Core 2.

Intel aren't out of the woods yet as AMD have a very capable architecture of their own and after 3 years it's starting to get noticed by the largest system builders and wider public. Core 2 marks a radical change from Intel's old philosophy of bigger is better, think of Core 2 as Intel shedding it's fat before it gets into the ring with AMD.
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