The first word that you’ll think of when someone yells ‘Intel’ is probably ‘Pentium’. These two words have been used together on so many occasions the past years, that the average computer buyer doesn’t even know the difference between them. But as you, a faithful reader of Tweakers.net, will undoubtetly be aware of, Intel does a lot more than ‘just’ designing and producing chips for desktops. A substantial part of Intel's revenues is generated by the server and professional workstation market. The number of customers that create this part of the revenue isn’t exactly large, and in general we’re only talking bigger companies here. Of course even those big companies won’t have a server on every desktop, so this market is quantitatively very small. The thing that makes this market so attractive is the customers, who demand high-quality products and are prepared to pay for it. This is one of the reasons why companies like AMD are trying to enter this market; there’s a lot of money involved. We’re talking about amounts of money that let Compaq and IBM decide to specifically design processors for servers only.
‘Xeon’ has the same recognizable sound to it for server or professional workstation users as the name ‘Pentium’ has to home users. After the design of the original Pentium processor, Intel designed an early successor to it, codenamed P6. The P6 was heavily optimized for 32-bit applications, which weren’t really available for the desktop market at the time. The result was that pre-production samples of the P6 were, in many of the current applications, slower than a normal Pentium. Intel decided to wait a while with the desktop launch of the P6, and created a server version of it, the Pentium Pro. The new server processor was released in autumn 1995. Things changed a bit when Intel finally released the Pentium II, two years later. While the packaging was different and the cache size smaller, the new desktop chip used exactly the same techniques as the Pentium Pro did. Intel decided to create a clearer distinction between the two processors, and named the Slot 2 versions of the Pentium Pro ‘Xeon’. Still, it has always been common to use the name of the desktop chip which it resembles most too. At this moment, we’re talking about the Pentium III Xeon processors, and they’re available in speeds up to 1GHz.
The future of the Intel server series once again, just like 6 years ago, depends on a new core; Itanium. However, the differences between the x86 IA-32 and the EPIC IA-64 architecture are so big, that an immediate change to the new architecture would be impossible. As you’ve seen in our previous sneak preview, the Itanium isn’t exactly the best at emulating its predecessors, so you’ll need special software to make use of the new generation of processors. Add to that that the prices of the 64-bit processors will be very high when they're finally released, even for the wealthy server and workstation buyers. Seeing this, it’s only reasonable that Intel will continue to develop server and workstation processors based on the old x86-architecture. The only logic next step in the evolution of the Xeon processor is to use the Pentium 4 core, and that’s exactly what Intel has been working on lately. The new Xeon is codenamed ‘Foster', and will be released as the ‘Intel Xeon’, omitting the ‘Pentium’ name in it.
Foster is, as said, based on the Pentium 4 core, but it can’t be used on the same chipsets as its little desktop nephew, just like the older Xeons. Intel chose a new interface for Foster, Socket 603, and the accompanying chipset was named i860 Colusa. The i860 chipset supports a maximum of 2 processors and uses Rambus RDRAM memory. The official presentation of Foster to the press and the public will be in a few days, until then we can’t make a lot of statements about the features of the new Xeon. But you can read on the next pages what we can expect of it, based on the specs of previous Xeons and some leaked facts.