Up from Nehalem: Westmere-based Dell Precision workstation wows

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Intel's new six-core chip delivers even more processing power to midrange workstations

In July of last year, I reviewed a group of new Nehalem-based workstations from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Lenovo. The outstanding characteristic of these machines was the terrific performance conferred by the new Intel processor architecture. In this review, I examine an update to one of the models, the Dell Precision T5500 workstation. It now ships with the latest incarnation of Intel's Xeon family, code-named Westmere. Benchmarks show it to be stronger and faster, while consuming less power.

The result is an excellent 12-core workstation that combines top performance, excellent graphics rendering, and miserly energy consumption, all in a desktop form factor. Let's look at the details.

Dell Precision T5500: The workstation

The Dell Precision T5500 workstation is the midrange machine in the vendor's lineup. That lineup could be viewed as serving three tiers: value (sub-$5,000), which includes the T1500 and T3500 models; midrange ($5,000 to $10,000), consisting of the T5500 model; and the high-end (greater than $10,000), which includes the highly expandable T7500 model.

In past years, the midrange has been a somewhat forgotten tier; customers wanted either value or all the power they could possibly get, regardless of cost. As a result, they favored the ends of the spectrum, rather than the middle. However, there is a growing appreciation that the high-end machines command a very high premium for the extra power and scalability. Today, the midrange machines, which are remarkably powerful systems in their own right, are emerging as a good blend of value and power.

The Westmere processor is also faster, running at 3.3GHz (vs. 2.93GHz Nehalem in the previous review). This new clock speed is an important number. When Intel and AMD were competing at the turn of the century to deliver the fastest single-core processors, their offerings topped out at roughly this same 3.3GHz. At that point, the companies realized that pushing the clocks even a little faster would require so much more power that PCs would burn up from the radiated heat. This realization drove them to move to multiple cores -- providing processing power in parallel. But when they did so, they dropped the clock rates back below 2GHz.

For many applications that ran on just one core, the result of this redesign was decreased performance. Both companies used numerous tricks to increase execution speed, such as larger caches, better branch prediction, and so on. Now, with Westmere, the clock speed of each core has finally worked its way back to where it was when the multicore revolution began. However, because of the added technologies and refinements, a single-threaded app on a 3.3GHz Westmere core runs considerably faster than it did on the last of the Pentium 4 chips with the same clock speed.

In addition to adding two cores to Westmere and increasing its clock speed, Intel bumped up the L3 cache to 12MB per chip (from 8MB). This keeps the cache/core ratio the same. However, because all cores can access all the L3 cache, active cores have as much as 50 percent more cache into which to store data and code for quick access when other cores are dormant.

Dell Precision T5500: Performance
A side-by-side comparison of last year's Nehalem-based T5500 with this year's model is shown in the performance sidebar. As always, these numbers need some explanation. There appears to be a big jump in the SPEC Viewperf 10 results. This benchmark measures straight graphics output capacity. The number on last year's machine is an anomaly due to how the test was conducted. (It's due in part to Dell's default vsync setting on Nvidia cards, which optimizes image quality but limits performance.) Additional tests of the same graphics subsystem done at that time showed results of around 85.

The pure graphics processing power is the same -- not surprising, given that the Nvidia graphics adapter is the same. ViewPerf 11 was not used last year, so there are no comparative results. It's included here so that you can compare against other workstations using the new version of the benchmark. Going forward, ViewPerf 10 is being retired in favor of version 11.

Dell Precision T5500 specs (as tested)

 
Processor2 x Intel Xeon X5680 3.3GHz
Cores per processor6
L2 cache per core / L3 cache per processor1.5MB / 12MB
ChipsetIntel 5520
System RAM / type / speed6GB / DDR3 / 1,333MHz
Graphics cardNvidia Quadro 4800
Graphics RAM1.5GB
USB front / rear / internal2 / 6 / 3
FireWire0
PS/22
Power supply875W
Operating systemWindows 7 Ultimate x64
Drive bays (3.5-inch)4
PCI slots (legacy / -e x8 / -e x16 / 64)1 / 1 / 2 / 2
Max DIMMs9 (includes 3 on a riser card)
Card reader19:1 internal USB card reader
Weight43 pounds (19.5 kg)
Cost$9,149

Dell Precision T5500 benchmark results (Westmere vs. Nehalem)

 Dual Intel X5680 Westmere, 12 cores, 3.3GHzDual Intel X5580 Nehalem, 8 cores, 2.93GHz
Date tested and reviewedNovember 2010July 2009
SPEC Viewperf 1085.8969.90 [see text]
SPEC Viewperf 1126.16Not tested
Cinebench 10 x6441,772 / 8.2x29,284 / 6.5x
Sandra ALU255.9K Dhrystone MIPS161.2K Dhrystone MIPS
Sandra Memory Latency84 ns80 ns
Sandra Memory Bandwidth18.89 GBps14.39 GBps
Sandra HDD Bandwidth137.66 MBps92.75MBps
Sandra HDD Random Access Time15 ms16 ms
Power consumption at rest156 W170 W
Power consumption at 100%334 W405 W

This story, "Up from Nehalem: Westmere-based Dell Precision workstation wows," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in workstations, servers, processors, and other hardware at InfoWorld.com.

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