Historically, Intel has not been the number one provider of hardware for servers and workstations. Before the release of the Pentium Pro, companies like Sun, HP, IBM and DEC had their way with the high-end server and workstation markets. After the release of the Pentium Pro however, things began to change; For the first time Intel and the x86 world in general, could be taken seriously as a provider of server and workstation class hardware. Although quite expensive compared to Intel’s other offerings and in spite of the fact that it was based on a platform that had quick obsolescence written all over it (Socket-8 never reared its head again), the Pentium Pro was a promising server solution. What allowed for its success was that Intel also provided reliable and downright desirable platforms for the Pentium Pro to be run on. A processor is only as good as the platform that it must run on. Case in point was the introduction of the first 133MHz FSB Pentium IIIs; they didn’t sell well initially because of the fact that the i820 chipset wasn’t an attractive platform.
The Pentium II expanded on the strengths and nullified the weaknesses of the Pentium Pro, continuing to offer an “Intel inside” approach to servers and workstations. The release of the Xeon line of Pentium II and later Pentium III processors extended Intel’s presence in this market as well. Unfortunately, by the time the first 133MHz FSB Xeons were released, Intel was faced with a major problem.
We just finished mentioning the importance of a good platform in making a good processor, unfortunately, as we all are very aware of, Intel didn’t have the best chipsets available at the end of 1999. If you’ll recall back to our first article on upgrading the AnandTech server backbone, we felt the results of this deficiency in Intel’s line when upgrading our servers last year. This forced us to seek alternatives, which eventually brought us to AMD’s Athlon.
If the solution were as simple as recommending that everyone make use of the AMD Athlon, there would be no point for this review and no point for the company we are about to introduce in particular. The fact of the matter is that the Athlon is still not ready for the big screen when it comes to high-end servers and workstations. While the processor has the benefit of being an extremely well performing solution there is the one major caveat that is continuing to hold it back, that being multiprocessor support. The AMD 760MP chipset, the first SMP chipset for an AMD processor, is still a few months away from being available in retail channels and unfortunately, not everyone can just wait.
As we have seen so many times in history, with a hole like this in the product line of a major player, there is more than enough room for a smaller company to fill the void with a niche product. That smaller company was ServerWorks, just recently acquired by Broadcom and the niche product is their ServerSet III line of chipsets.