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Intel’s Ivy Bridge CPUs from Ultrabooks to HPC clusters – what stuff goes where?

As Intel launches the initial Ivy Bridge range this week, many more will follow, covering the range from thin UltraBooks to large SMP servers, over the next one year or so. What kind of flavours would go into each specific market?

As you all know by now, the first wave of Ivy Bridge offerings Intel will launch right today (or tomorrow, depending on which part of the world you are in) are based on the base standard die, the quad core 8 MB L3 cache part that fits into the currently existing desktop and mobile pinouts of its predecessor, the Sandy Bridge. We already looked at the new features on the die itself, however what will be the variants of Ivy Bridge that will cover the PC market, from top to bottom, over the next one year?

The initial launch covers two main markets in both desktop and mobile spaces: the high end – but not ultra high end that's represented by the Socket 2011 – and the general mainstream. So, the quad core die, shared amongst most of the SKUs, will come along in a spread of frequencies and TDP levels between 35W and 77W, and with certain features like multithreading or cache size modified or disabled along the way. For instance, lower cost quad core units will have hyperthreading disabled, and cache reduced to 6 MB. Same applies for the graphics unit, which will operate at half performance level at the low end part of the spread.

Interestingly, even though the top desktop 'K' SKUs are multiplier unlocked, the only 'Extreme' edition branding this time is reserved for just one high end gaming notebook speed bin, at 2.9 GHz base speed before Turbo, aimed at 17+ inch LANparty laptops, I guess.

The smaller dual-core 4 MB die, but still with full HD4000 graphics engine implementation, will be the one applicable to the Ultrabook market in the 17W TDP flavour, as well as to low end integrated desktops. Now, Sandy Bridge Ultrabook power vs performance compromise, while not affecting CPU that much, did make the GPU performance too low level for any 3-D work. With this Ivy Bridge replacement, 3-D on Ultrabooks will gain double the performance for more productive use, although real-time 3-D gaming with effects enabled is still something we need to wait for in Haswell Ultrabooks next year – or AMD Trinity Ultrathins next month, if you hear the other sides' whispers.

Even then, the Ultrabook flavour of the Ivy Bridge is expected to be with us only in June, so there are still roughly six weeks away till that moment, likely to coincide with Computex this year.  Whether there will be further ULV versions of Ivy Bridge, as the process is improved, to allow for 10~ W uber-tablet PC implementation, remains to be seen, although such a derivative would be far more interesting than, say, Atom, to fight ARM from a performance win standpoint for Windows 8 HD++ tablet space.

By the end of this summer, do expect a stepping improvement for the initial Ivy Bridge parts as well, resulting from those same process improvements along the way (say: leakage fix?), as well as die tweaks. As there is sufficient clock speed margin even in the current parts, it's only up to Intel to decide whether to offer extra speed bins at that time as well, depending on the arrival of any new competition.

Beyond that, the next market segment – enthusiast desktops and dual-processor servers & workstations – gets addressed by the Socket 2011 Ivy Bridge-EP platform. Already covered extensively here, the up to 10-core, 25 MB cache processors will also support DDR3-1866 natively even on servers, and the single socket desktop version should support at least 8 active cores out of 10 this time, if not all 10. However, to keep the clock speed high within the TDP limits, the 8-from-10 choice seems more likely. The Ivy Bridge-EP should be mainstay dual processor platform for the whole of 2013 – we hope to see it by the end of this year, actually. If no major inventory clearance headaches with the Sandy Bridge-EP, there's nothing to stop Intel from unveiling Ivy Bridge-EP before this Christmas. With higher performance for the TDP and die size, Intel could make more dosh per chip with the newbie, anyway.

At the end, soon after the Ivy Bridge-EP, likely early next year, you'll see the last Ivy Bridge… the Ivy Bridge-EX. It's the first CPU of the new Brickland four-socket enterprise server platforms, with up to 15 cores, monster-sized L3 caches close to the 40 MB range, three QPI channels, lots and lots of DDR3-1600 and multi-terabyte memory capacity within one 2U server rackmount box. Unlike the dual socket ones, this platform will accept the future Haswell and beyond EX processors as well, with a BIOS update of course. Pity there are no four or more QPI links here, for better glueless high-end inter CPU connections…

So, there you go – Ivy Bridge starts with the high end and mainstream quad-core desktop and mobile this month, moves on to the Ultrabooks and other dual core markets in June; gets stepping-refreshed around late summer, then kicks into the Socket 2011 top end platform around year end, to finish the platform run with the quad-socket and above monster servers. By that time, we'll see Haswell enter the fray too… 

Nebojsa Novakovic
In the spare time over the past two decades, editor and writer of high-end computer hardware and design features and analysis for European and US media and analyst houses. Reviews of high end hardware are my specialty for 28 years already.

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