Fourth-generation Intel Core processors based on the 22nm Haswell architecture have been available for desktop and mobile systems for well over a year, while low-end servers got the Haswell-based Xeon E3 last September. Now it’s the turn of the more powerful Xeon E5, with over 30 new Haswell-based implementations released at the beginning of September 2014. These chips promise significant performance improvements compared to their now-ageing Ivy Bridge predecessors.

What’s new

As usual, Intel dropped its easy-to-remember codename as soon as the new processors were released. So, out goes the catchy ‘Haswell-EP’ moniker previously assigned to the Ivy Bridge replacements, and in come the more prosaic Xeon E5-1600 v3 and E5-2600 v3 families.

The Xeon E5-x600 v3 is a major release, with the maximum core count for the dual-socket E5-2600 v3 rocketing from 12 to a whopping 18. Add in multi-threading and that’s up to 36 processing threads per socket. Cache stays the same, at 2.5MB per core across the board, but another key feature is the long-awaited addition of support for DDR4 memory technology, with quad-channel access and a clock speed of up to 2,133MHz depending on the processor SKU.

In addition to those extra cores and faster memory, the new Xeon chips also benefit from an integrated voltage regulator and a slew of enhanced power-management features, including Per Core P-State (PCPS) to dynamically adapt power to each core, plus Uncore Frequency Scaling (UFS) and Energy Efficient Turbo (EFT). These features, along with the power efficiency of DDR4 RAM, should allow the new Xeons to deliver up to 90 percent better performance while using a lot less power than the old Ivy Bridge chips, according to Intel.

Despite all that, power requirements for individual processors have gone up. TDP (Thermal Design Power) envelopes for the E5-2600 v3 now range from 55 Watts for the 8-core 1.8GHz E5-2630L v3 with 1,866MHz RAM, to 145W for the top-of-the-range 18-core 2.3GHz E5-2699 v3 with full-on 2,133MHz RAM. By contrast, the old E5-2600 V2 chips topped out at 130W, so some care will be needed to get the power and cooling right — especially when you’re considering a large server upgrade.

The single-socket E5-1600 v3 with 4, 6 or 8 cores and a TDP of 140W in each case is very much aimed at workstation buyers. However, there’s also a workstation-specific model of the dual-socket chip, the 10-core E5-2687W v3, which, with a TDP of 160W, is considered a little too hot for crowded server racks.

Elsewhere Intel’s Quickpath Interconnect (QPI) also gets a hurry-up in this release, jumping from 8 to 9.6GT/sec on the dual-socket Xeons. The v3 chips also all get extra AVX 2.0 instructions and, courtesy of the supporting C612 chipset, access to six USB 3.0 ports. This is a welcome change, as the old Ivy Bridge Xeons had no USB 3.0 support at all and a miserly USB 2.0 count of just four. That’s been doubled to eight in this release, with 10 SATA 3.0 ports also added for good measure.

More than just a CPU upgrade

So much for processor internals, but what you also need to know is that you can’t just plug the new Xeon into the same motherboards as the old Ivy Bridge chips. The pin arrangement is unchanged, but a new third version of the LGA2011 socket (R3) is required to enable the new Xeon platforms to run a quad-channel DDR4 memory system. Plus, of course, you need the C612 chipset and other circuitry enhancements to take advantage of all the enhanced features.

That means new motherboards or, more commonly, replacement servers, making for an expensive upgrade for companies that are not prepared to wait until existing systems are due for replacement before moving to the new Xeon platform.

The leading server vendors — HP, Dell and Lenovo — have, of course, all announced products based on the new chips. SuperMicro has also been quick out of the blocks and has a slew of both servers and workstations designed around the Xeon E5-2600 v3, a handful of which we previewed at the labs of UK distributor Boston in the run-up to the September processor launch.

Boston X10 series

To accommodate the Haswell-based Xeon E5-2600 v3, SuperMicro has a whole new family of X10 dual-socket motherboards, all built around the C612 chipset. Available in a variety of formats, these boards will make their way into most of the servers in the Boston lineup, although at the launch only two were available to preview: a 1U Value server and an updated 2U Boston Quattro containing four hot-pluggable server nodes.

The Boston Value 360p is the newly upgraded 1U server, featuring sockets for the Xeon E5-2600 v3 accompanied by 16 DIMM slots, which can accept up to 1TB of DDR4 memory. The new server also benefits from the full set of six USB 3.0 ports plus a dual-port Intel X540 10GBase-T controller for high-speed networking. However, instead of using the SAS 3.0 capabilities provided by Intel’s latest chipset, Boston has opted instead for a plug-in mezzanine card carrying an LSI 12Gbps SAS RAID controller.

Up to 10 disks can be fitted into the 1U Value chassis to go with this RAID card. In addition, Boston is also offering support for NVM Express (NVMe), a new interface standard that enables SSDs to be connected directly to the PCI Express bus rather than employing a conventional drive interface. NVMe significantly boosts I/O throughput and reduces latency by up to 50 percent.

It’s not cheap, but for data-intensive applications NVMe should be worth it; on the preview system a pair of Intel P3600 Series NVMe SSDs were used to provide high-speed storage alongside a conventional disk array.

Higher up the data centre scale, the high-density Quattro 1218-6 features four dual-socket nodes inside hot-pluggable sleds. On the preview model each node had dual 16-core Xeon E5-2698 v3 processors plus 64GB of DDR4 memory, delivering an impressive set of four very capable 32-core servers in just 2U of rack space.

LSI SAS controllers are also used here, connecting to SAS 3.0 SSDs with dual Gigabit Ethernet ports on each node, plus 10GbE Base-T and FDR Infiniband options if needed.

Finally Boston Venom workstations also come in for the Haswell treatment with choice of models, including the Venom 2401-12T, which will ship with a pair of 3.1GHz Xeon E5-2687W processors. That’s the special 3.1GHz workstation chip with a 160W TDP that can also be overclocked, so to keep things nice and cool Boston has opted for liquid cooling on this model.

Venom buyers will also get 128GB of DDR4 memory, upgradable to 1TB, along with a high-end Nvidia Quadro K6000 graphics card plus room for more if wanted. Mirrored SATA disks provide 2TB of redundant storage on the base model workstation accompanied by a high-speed SSD configured as a scratch drive and a Blu-ray writer. The full set of six USB 3.0 ports provided by the C612 chipset are also available on this model with two Gigabit network ports competing the specification.

More to come

There’s a lot of bang being added by the new Haswell Xeons, and there should be products to suit a wide range of budgets (see Intel’s website for recommended prices). HP is using them to power the next generation of its Proliants and Dell is following suit with both servers and workstations. Needless to say, as soon as we get our hands on any of these we’ll come back with more detail on what to expect both in terms of performance and, of course, how much it will cost.