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Unlocking the Sandy Bridge Xeon: The 2012 super high end platform

Xeon E5 is a little late, but still expected to be the dominant high end workstation platform for 2012. What about the enthusiasts wanting to push these lovely 8-core dual-socket CPUs to the limits? We have the answers.

Before EVGA showed off their famous W555 SR2 board some 20 months ago, there was little hope to unlock the vast overclocking potential of the dual-socket Westmere EP 6 core Xeon 5600 chips, the close cousins of the Core i7 980X and later 990X high end desktop processors. Even though these workstation & server chips pass very tough screening and, by nature, should handle overclocking on everyday basis even better, there was no such board to support it, and Intel didn’t unlock the multipliers either.

Anyway, the flexible BCLK on the Tylersburg platform enabled EVGA to create the ultimate board that allowed them to reach near 6 GHz on 12 cores with LN2 in 2010, and of course, also enabled production 4 – 4.5 GHz 12 core Xeons with huge amounts of 6-channel DDR-1600+ memory, including ultra low latency desktop kits besides the usual high capacity server kits. This would be the base of  ultimate quad-GPU gaming machines, but also engineering workstation, specialized HPC visualization cluster kits, and, guess what… rapid high frequency trading machines for the machination masters of Wall Street and such places.

Why? Well, for an ubergamer, having the fastest machine around may lead to the ego boost from highest FPS or whatever. But, to an engineer rushing to complete and invoice a job, finishing the whole calculation 20% faster as the system is brought from 3.33 GHz DDR3-1333 to 4.3 GHz DDR3-2000+ means winning the job, and getting the money more and/or earlier. And, for a nasty competitive bunch of high frequency stock exchange traders, a lower latency machine with higher throughput too, means beating the competitors for million dollar trades every minute. Even if the machine dies within 3 months, who cares? It’d have made its money hundreds of times over – and these guys pay top dollar for top SKUs, then extra for reliable OC, no questions asked. Just ask SGI, how they used this board.

Now we come to the upcoming, 8 core, feature-rich, power hungry Xeon E5. The TDP issues we mentioned before did have a role to play in the somewhat lower initial frequencies that this part will have compared to the Westmere EP, as well as limiting its brand new desktop twin, the Core i7 3960X to just 6 cores at start. Those 8 cores, 20 MB L3 cache and 4 DDR3-1600 memory channels, combined with dual 8 GT/s QPI channels and 40 PCIe v3 8 GT/s channels – notice how QPI and PCIe now get kinda in sync – really push the 32 nm process to the limit without even any OC to consider.

After all, according to our OEM sources at IDF, just confirmed in Taiwan, the highest speed initial part in the E5-2600 series, aimed at dual socket workstations and HPC, is expected to only top 3.1 GHz before Turbo, yet it asks for a 150W TDP. That is of course, still by far the fastest X86 part to be in the market at the time, but what if we want more?

Well, the rumours say that, encouraged by the unexpected success of the Westmere Xeon 5600 in the OC space, Intel is quite ready to go ahead with unlocked versions of the high end Xeon E5 too. After all, the users of the upcoming EVGA SR-X dual Socket 2011 mainboard, or its likely competitors from Gigabyte or Asus, wouldn’t mind even 250W TDP per socket to get to well above 4 GHz with dual 8-core Xeon E5, backed by 8 memory channels.

Such a board, based on the current experiences with the Core i7-3960X and its cooling, could easily run a say 4.5 GHz dual 8-core setup, with 8 channels total of DDR3-2133 memory – although low latency DDR3-1600 CL6 should be just enough as well. With near half teraflop of peak FP double precision power if using AVX coding, and well over 100 GB/s main memory bandwidth, the monster desktop could feed up to 8 GPUs easily over its 80 PCIe v3 lanes.

For those who can’t afford the big dualie, but still want more than just 6 cores of the 3960X, well look forward some of single socket 8-core Xeon E5 Socket 2011 parts – they are expected to work in the current X79 desktop boards too! Of course, you have to pay more than the usual $999 limit Intel puts on its high end desktop SKUs then. Look here for more info as the things move forward.

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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