Flaw halts Intel Xeon 550 shipments

Flaw halts Intel Xeon 550 shipments

Intel has put a hold on shipping two versions of its 550MHz Pentium III Xeon 550 chips to OEMs for at least a couple of weeks because of a bug that is causing eight-way servers to hang, company officials confirmed.

Versions of the chip containing the 512KB and 1MB caches have a problem involving communication between the processor and Intel's Saber motherboard, although company officials said they are still evaluating the full extent of the problem. The 2MB cache version of the chip does not appear to have the glitch, officials from both Intel and two OEMs said.

"We know there is a problem when we have a specific input signal from the processor that is at a slightly different range of voltage than specified on the processor data sheet. We expect to hopefully see a workaround in the next couple of weeks," said Otto Pijpker, an Intel spokesman.

A number of OEMs over the past couple of weeks were registering complaints that systems with the 512KB and 1MB versions of the chip were hanging on boot-up and presenting them with what one OEM called the "blue screen of death".

Intel officials admitted they discovered the problem during the typical stress tests they perform, which involve running industrial strength software intended to show up any defects in the chip and associated hardware.

"You have to keep in mind that this [problem] was observed in running test software that purposely stresses the processor and memory sub-systems, [software] that you would not see in general usage," Pijpker said.

Some analysts believe the problem is a mixed blessing. The bad news is chip bugs are never good because they cause problems with how systems process what could be crucial server-level applications. The good news is Intel appears to have caught the problem early on before many customers have deployed systems containing the offending chips.

They caution, however, that users should consult with their manufacturers to see if there are problems specific to that manufacturer's configuration of the system.

"I can't tell how big a deal it is because we don't know how many people have bought the system so far. If they have, they probably want to contact their system vendors to see what they can do," said James Gruener, an analyst at The Aberdeen Group.

Both Intel officials and analysts said they do not know how many systems OEMs have shipped out containing the chip. Manufacturers interviewed last week declined to say how many systems they have shipped to customers.

Intel shipped the finished versions of the Xeon 550 to OEMs on August 23.

Gruener said the problem may not hold Intel up to the most flattering light as large accounts begin to weigh eight-way servers containing the Xeon 550 with competing architectures.

"It probably doesn't bode well for the perception that Intel is ready to challenge other architectures in the enterprise. What people have to remember about the Intel platform, though, is that this is no different than any other microprocessor arch in terms of having an errata," Gruener said.

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