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William George (Puget Labs Technician)

Why to Choose a Xeon

Written on April 7, 2015 by William George

Why Use a Xeon?

For over 15 years, Intel has branded their x86 server and workstation processors under the name “Xeon”. They have ranged from simply variants of Intel’s mainstream processor line with some extra features enabled - like ECC memory support - to much more advanced designs with added processor capabilities and cache memory.


Despite Intel directing the Xeons toward specific types of users and applications, there has been some confusion over when they are the appropriate choice versus a more mainstream processor (like a modern Core i5 or i7). I’ve had gamers ask about a Xeon because they thought they were more powerful, and that it would help performance in their games. Likewise, I have had businesses ask about running servers on Core i7 processors. So when does a Xeon make sense, and what do they really bring to the table?


ECC Memory - The most prominent feature of the Xeon processors is support for ECC memory. As far as I am aware all Xeons have supported that, and the protection ECC provides against single-bit memory errors (which it can detect and correct on the fly) is critical for systems where uptime and reliability are key. A few mainstream Intel processors have also supported ECC over the years, if used with the right chipset / motherboard, but to ensure you have proper support for this technology it is best to go with a Xeon.


Multiple CPUs - Some applications can benefit tremendously from having either a lot of processor cores, a large amount of memory, or high memory bandwidth (or all three). In such situations, a system with more than one CPU can be a great way to go… but mainstream processors like the Core series don’t support that. Many Xeons do, though, through added on-chip logic to facilitate communication between the CPUs so that they can share access to memory and coordinate workloads. Each CPU in such a configuration has its own memory controller and set of memory modules, plus its processing cores, so you gain in both raw computing capacity as well as the amount of memory that can be installed (capacity) and moved around at the same time (bandwidth). The multi-CPU capability of current generation Xeons can be found in the first digit of their model name. For example:


Xeon E3 1246 V3 (1 = single CPU only)

Xeon E5 2460 V3 (2 = dual CPU support, but can also be used alone)

Xeon E5 4627 V2 (4 = quad CPU support)


Each processor also has a PCI-Express controller that supports a certain number of lanes (depending on the model), so having multiple CPUs can enable motherboards with more PCI-Express slots. That can be useful for stacking lots of accelerator or co-processor cards like the Intel Xeon Phi or NVIDIA Tesla.

Higher Core Counts - In addition to the potential for using more than one CPU in a system to increase threaded workload performance, some Xeons simply feature more cores than anything on the more mainstream side of Intel’s processor lines. Currently the Core i3 processors top out at two cores, Core i5 at four core, Core i7 at eight cores, but the Xeon E5 series goes up to eighteen cores! As you climb in core count the base clock speed goes down somewhat, and cost goes up due to complexity, but heavily threaded applications can see big boosts from those added cores.


Virtualization Support - A lot of modern server workloads are being virtualized, which means the software and even operating system is running inside of isolated ‘bubbles’ of fake hardware. This allows a single host OS to manage several of these virtual environments, and isolates what happens within those environments to some degree - but it requires special extensions to be supported by the underlying hardware. Xeon CPUs generally have good support for that, as do most server and workstation class motherboards. You can sometimes find those features on more mainstream hardware as well, but it is a lot less likely that the whole chain (CPU, chipset, BIOS, etc) will support them… so the safest path is to get a Xeon based setup if your plans involve virtualization.


Those are a few good reasons to go with a Xeon based system, though not all of them. There are other factors like remote management, multiple and/or high-speed network ports, and more which are found on the server and workstation class motherboards populated by Xeons… but those are not specific to the Xeon processors themselves.


What about the bad ideas, though? Or to put it another way, the misinformed reasons to get a Xeon? Here are some of the top reasons I’ve seen people use for wanting a Xeon, when they would in reality be better served by something else:

“A more ‘powerful’ Xeon will help my gaming, right?” -

Some people assume that since Xeon processors are found in high-end workstations and servers they must also be better for gaming. That is definitely *not* true, because computer games don’t need a lot of cores or the other various advantages that Xeons bring to the table. As of the time I am writing this, no games use more than four cores - and many use less. What games are sensitive to, though, is clock speed… and as I mentioned earlier when you increase the number of cores you usually reduce the clock speed. So getting an 18-core Xeon for gaming would actually result in much *lower* performance than a cheaper, higher clock speed 4-core processor. Some argument can be made for a 6-core CPU for gaming (future-proofing, lots of background applications running at the same time, etc) but that can be fulfilled within the Core i7 line, without needing to go for a Xeon.

This principle extends beyond just games too. Some professional, workstation-grade applications don’t use a lot of cores, and so may be better off with mainstream processors. There are also low core count / high clock speed Xeons, but the more mainstream CPUs from Intel tend to reach slightly higher clock speeds. Which leads too...


“I want to have the fastest clock speeds possible for my calculations, maybe even overclock the CPU…” - If you want to overclock then you don’t want a Xeon. They are not multiplier unlocked like the ‘enthusiast’ (upper mainstream) processors that Intel aims at the overclocking crowd, and the motherboards that are built for use with Xeons are not likely to feature the sort of fine-tuning options which are needed either. Beyond that, Xeon-based platforms are all about reliability - and overclocking is by its very nature a more risky proposition. You are pushing the CPU beyond its rated specifications, and while it can be done conservatively (we make sure every system we overclock here passes the same stability tests that normal systems do) it is inherently a less reliable option, especially over a long period of time. There are applications where that is worthwhile, both for fun (like extreme gaming) and actual productive workloads… but you will be much better served in such situations by processors and motherboards which are designed to give you the options needed to get good results.




Xeons are great for workstations and servers, or any time you need more multi-threaded performance or reliability than a mainstream, single-CPU system can offer. We have seen a major trend in the last couple of years toward Xeon based systems, as we have seen our customer base shift in the direction of professional users - but they aren't always the right answer. Hopefully the information above can aid you in making a smart choice about what processor platform is best for your needs, but remember that we are here to help design and build systems for you! Please contact us via phone or email if you need help configuring a system.

Tags: Xeon, Processor, CPU, Intel, Server, Workstation

Great post, William! There are so many iterations of Intel chips out there, it can be tough to navigate them all. You mention that you are seeing a trend towards Xeon systems. Do you find yourself recommended Xeons more often than you used to? If so, why do you think that is the case?

Posted on 2015-04-07 20:47:17

Well, I'd say it is a combination of a couple things:

- Customers coming to us wanting higher performance systems, with workloads that are capable of using many cores / multiple CPUs. It used to be hard to find software that effectively threaded beyond 2-4 cores, but it is getting more common now.

- Customers who value stability and are willing to pay a little more for above-average levels of it. That makes ECC memory valuable and appealing. Since most mainstream Intel CPUs don't support ECC, and AMD processors (which often do support ECC) are less powerful than Intel models, this results in the Xeon being a good choice for many users.

Posted on 2015-04-07 20:51:38

William, not to bash at all, but I found the article a little simple and not comparing them to anything.

Like the pro/cons vs Opterons in Abu Dhabi version fx. Both have lots of cores, Xeons are more modern and run on more modern mainboards etc, but the dirt low price of Opterons is alluring for 20+ core setups and unlike the Hyperthreading (that Mr.Kinghorn proved weren't all good roses) Opterons runs all "real" cores, rather than threading each core into 2 threads.

I am a Xeon fan myself now because of DDR4 memory and the PCI-e 3.0 lane capabilties (for HBAs for SSDs in JBOD for software raids) over the now older and older Opterons, but pricing vs FLOPs delivered, aren't the Opterons still a fairly good low end bid for like up to 64 cores? (4x16 core server for Abu Dhabi fx is still cheap compared to even 8c x 3Ghz E5 v3's)

Could you make this article 1 of 2 or 3?

Like the simple introduction to Xeons and then 1-2 advanced ones, with the 2nd comparing the pro/cons to Opterons and a 3rd comparing low end Xeon setups to the new 14nm all-in-one solution Xeon from Intel, the D-1540 on (fx) a Supermicro X10SDV-TLN4F board for sub $1000, with 8c/16t for a very low price (for cheap and potent nodes for a Hadoop cluster fx)

Some scaling and pricing vs performance would be really nice, especially since you guys are so competent at this stuff. Of cause there needs to be some entry level stuff too, but this could be a good oppotunity for getting into scaling and comparisons for different scenarios, apart from HPC and Linpack testing which Kinghorn has a monopoly on. I was thinking distributed DB performance, tested, or Hadoop node scaling and price vs boost in performance etc.
I know it is slightly outside scope, but any news on when the Xeon Phi Knights Landing (for CPU sockets, not the pci-e version) will arrive for sale?
Any news on the cost for a single 72c/288t 1.25/1.33 Ghz (whatever it comes up to be) Xeon Phi cpu will cost? (and with what RAM options?)

Thanks for the great work so far. Waiting patiently for the Kinghorn article-in-spe on the Knight's Landing (CPU socket version) article when they get released for sale and he can get to test them. Juiciest CPU release/news this year in my world :) Should completely change the HPC/MPP scene if the rumors about RAM at 5x DDR4 speeds hold true.

Posted on 2015-04-18 23:15:25

Thank you for your comment and ideas, Ramos. I'm sorry this blog entry didn't end up being quite what you were looking for. My goal here was to give and overall view of Xeons vs Intel's consumer-oriented processors, one that would hold up and be accurate not only today but in several years time (until Intel changes their branding or approach). I didn't want to get into specifics of the current generation of Xeons, or bring in other CPU manufacturers; either of those would widen the focus and make the info less applicable as time goes on. The same things goes with bringing pricing into the mix, as that can fluctuate.

For performance info on Opteron vs Xeon, or various current Xeons vs eachother, I think Don or Matt might be better qualified to write about. Those also might be more appropriate for our articles, rather than our blog. It is good to know what folks are looking for, though, so again I appreciate your response :)

Posted on 2015-04-20 15:54:37
Anthony Tanas

X Plane 10 (http://www.x-plane.com) advertises that it will as many CPUs and as many cores as you can provide. So would a rig optimized for X Plane 10 call for Xenon?

Posted on 2015-07-30 02:12:17

Well what about dx 12?
It uses multithread if used for gaming in the new single cpu mode knights landing is capable of wont it be great for gaming being recognized as a second cpu?

Posted on 2015-09-06 19:04:12

I went with dual Xeons myself, but I'm disappointed with the OpenGL performance number in Cinebench R15.. just 58FPS and this with a Titan X GPU. Others on the i7 platform report scores ranging from 166 to 202FPS for Titan X.
In realworld apps, the experience is choppy playback of 24P 4K material in Premiere and 40% of frames dropped on 60P 4K, despite fast SDD drives for each media stream and separate SSD for OS and another for temp files.
I thought maybe my Titan X was defective, so I swapped in my GTX680, which scores 78FPS when plugged into my 7 year old Core2Quad machine. It got the identical 58FPS when plugged into the Supermicro X10DRi with two Xeon E5-2630 v3 CPUs.
This system has 128GB of ECC RAM, the recommended brand and part number specified by Supermicro.
I'm at a loss as to what to do. I'm thinking I should have gone with an i7 at 1/5 the cost and spent the difference on a second Sony FS7.
I have spent 3 hours minimum, every night since June 30th, when I built the system, troubleshooting this problem and optimizing Windows 7 64-bit. I've reached the conclusion that 60P 4K is not possible with today's computer technology, and that dual Xeons are not the way to go for an editing system.

Posted on 2015-10-08 04:22:13
Atanas Ctonlob

Whats your take on teh 5.1 xeon cpu coming out, will that be any good for gaming?

Posted on 2016-01-27 22:54:25

Assuming the rumors about that are true, yes - I expect it would be great for gaming. It is supposed to have 4 cores, which is ideal for today's games, and the top clock speed of any Intel processor yet made. We'll have to wait and see, though, as this seems almost too good to be true for applications where, like games, clock speed trumps the number of cores. Also, price will be a big question: it is supposed to be a dual-CPU Xeon version, which tend to cost more, and if the price is too high compared to something like the i7 6700K then it may not be worthwhile (at least for gaming).

Posted on 2016-01-27 22:57:44