In an ideal world, marketing serves to inform the consumer so that the consumer can make a well-informed decision. Of course, in the pursuit of sales, marketing these days rarely informs and often brainwashes, but there are still some cases, such as computer chip marketing, where there isn't as much of a disconnect between increasing sales and being genuinely informative, and in such situations, failure to inform could hurt sales...
For over a month now, Intel has been advertising in print media the new server/workstation processors that it launched in late June. These chips were based on the same new architecture (NGMA) behind the new Core 2 Duo chips launched last week, meaning that they deliver dramatically better performance while consuming less power (and thus generating less heat*). Intel, wishing to inform the public of these great chips, loudly proclaimed in its ads that these chips perform better while consuming less juice--a spectacular 80% gain in perforamance per watt, all of which are true claims that many people have now verified. So... what's the problem?
Intel introduced its "Xeon" brand for server/workstation processors back in 1998, in the days of Pentium II. While Intel's other brands have undergone name changes, such as the well-known Pentium to Pentium II to Pentium III to Pentium 4 progression, the very recent Core (Duo) to Core 2 (Duo) progression, and the progression of Itanium to Itanium 2 for high-end "big iron" servers, Xeon has remained Xeon. So through nearly a decade of architectural overhauls, instead of progressing the name from Xeon to Xeon II (the switch to Netburst) to Xeon III (the switch to dual-core) to Xeon IV (the switch the NGMA), the name of the new chip that Intel hopes will rescue it from its arch-rival's increasingly-popular Opteron is "Xeon". This means that Intel's ad proclaiming the wonders of these new chips had no way of identifying these chips except by calling them the "new Xeons".
All this poses several problems. First, in late May, Intel had released a "new" line of Xeons: the 5000 series (which referred to the product numbers, like 5030 or 5060). These chips were only a minor revision of its existing line, and offered only a modest reduction in power consumption while maintaining roughly the same performance. Just a month after the introduction of the 5000 series, Intel released the real new Xeons that are the topic of this discussion. These chips are not a minor revision of the existing product line; they were a complete redesign and offered enormous reductions in power consumption while dramatically boosting performance. For people not familiar with the world of Intel microarchitectures (and most are not), this is rather confusing, as there were two "new" product lines introduced within a month of each other, and only one of them was worth any attention.
Second, the new NGMA-based processors were given product numbers in the 5100's instead of something that would have more clearly identified it as a new product, like something in the 6000's, especially since the 5000's were just released a month ago--this idiotic product numbering falsely suggests that the 5000 series were the new chips and the 5100 series were just a minor revision of the 5000 series. To make matters worse, Intel's ads never even specified the range of product numbers that its new NGMA chips would occupy. It doesn't say "new Xeon 5100 series", it just said "new Xeons".
Third, the new 51xx Xeons has lower clock speeds (GHz) than the older 50xx Xeons. However, since the new 51xx Xeon can do about 50-100% more work per GHz than the old 50xx Xeons, a 51xx Xeon clocked at 2.0 GHz can easily outperform a 50xx Xeon clocked at 3.0 GHz. However, Intel, which has marketed chips based solely on GHz for many years, has yet to fully adapt its marketing to informing people that performance isn't measured in GHz, but rather in GHz times IPC (instructions per cycle), which dampens its marketing push for its new products (all of which have much higher IPCs). They've made attempts to break way from the old GHz way of measuring performance, but these attempts have been incoherent at best.
Now imagine that you are a graphics artist who does professional image editing, and thus, you need a powerful workstation. However, since you're an artist and not a computer scientist, you have no idea what all this fuss about new microarchitectures is about. You go to Dell to order a Dell Precision workstation featuring Xeon chips. In the configuration screen, you see a list of processors to choose from. They all bear the same Xeon brand name. Their model numbers are all similar (and how would you know that there is such a huge difference in that second digit of the model number?). And Dell configuration page doesn't offer any bit of explanation of what's going on. The only thing that really sticks out are their clock speeds. So what would you do? There is a 3.73 GHz processor and a 3.0 GHz processor at the same price, so of course, you pick the 3.73 GHz one, oblivious to the fact that this processor is actually slower and will run up your power bill faster. And based on a story that I've heard through a friend, something very similar to this really did happen recently.
Intel has spent years building up the Xeon brand name, so it's understandable that they wish to keep it. But why can't they update the name to reflect the changes in the processor? They do this with all their other product lines: last week, they released the new "Core 2 Duo" processors, even though the difference between "Core 2" and "Core" is very small compared with the differences between "new" Xeon and Xeon. And they don't seem to have qualms about doing numerical branding with their other business/server chip, the Itanium, which was recently updated to Itanium 2. Numerical name updates would allow them to differentiate their chips without abandoning the brand name. A "Xeon II" brand for these new chips would not only help eliminate the vast amounts of confusion surrounding the new Xeons (even I needed to consult Intel's specification charts to get everything straight at first), but it would highlight that these are indeed radically new chips, free of the performance and power problems that plagued the older generation, and it would help generate the sort of product awareness that Intel needs to retake the market share that its old power-guzzling* Xeons have been hemorrhaging for over a year. But alas, for whatever strange reason, Intel did not do this, and the product awareness that Intel had hoped to generate for its new Xeons has degenerated into confusion.
* In server environments, power consumption is extremely important as 24/7 operation means that electrical costs can often match or exceed the purchase cost of a server in just a few years. Lower power consumption also means that the chips generate less heat so that less money has to be spent to cool the server rooms.
This entry was edited on 2006/08/02 at 09:11:50 GMT -0400.