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A SQL Server Hardware Nugget A Day – Day 14

Since 2006, Intel has adopted a Tick-Tock strategy for developing and releasing new processor models. Every two years, they introduce a new processor family, incorporating a new microarchitecture; this is the Tock release. One year after the Tock release, they introduce a new processor family that uses the same microarchitecture as the previous year’s Tock release, but using a smaller manufacturing process technology and usually incorporating other improvements such as larger cache sizes or improved memory controllers. This is the Tick release.

This Tick-Tock release strategy benefits the DBA in a number of ways. It offers better predictability regarding when major (Tock) and minor (Tick) releases will be available. This helps the DBA plan upgrades.

Tick releases are usually socket-compatible with the previous year’s Tock release, which makes it easier for the system manufacturer to make the latest Tick release processor available in existing server models quickly, without completely redesigning the system. In most cases, only a BIOS update is required to allow an existing system to use a newer Tick release processor. This makes it easier for the DBA to maintain servers that are using the same model number (such as a Dell PowerEdge R710 server), since the server model will have a longer manufacturing life span.

As a DBA, you need to know where a particular processor falls in Intel’s processor family tree if you want to be able to meaningfully compare the relative performance of two different processors. Historically, processor performance has nearly doubled with each new Tock release, while performance usually goes up by 20-25% with a Tick release.

Some of the recent Intel Tick-Tock releases are shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1: Intel’s Tick-Tock Release Strategy

The manufacturing process technology refers to the size of the individual circuits and transistors on the chip. The Intel 4004 (released in 1971) series used a 10-micron process; the smallest feature on the processor was 10 millionths of a meter across. By contrast, the Intel Xeon “Westmere” 5600 series (released in 2010) uses a 32nm process. For comparison, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, so 10-microns would be 10000 nanometers! This ever-shrinking manufacturing process is important for two main reasons:

Increased performance and lower power usage – even at the speed of light, distance matters, so having smaller components that are closer together on a processor means better performance and lower power usage.
Lower manufacturing costs – since you can produce more processors from a standard silicon wafer. This helps make more powerful and more power efficient processors available at a lower cost, which is beneficial to everyone, but especially for the database administrator.

The first Tock release was the Intel Core microarchitecture, which was introduced as the dual-core “Woodcrest” (Xeon 5100 series) in 2006, with a 65nm process technology. This was followed up by a shrink to 45nm process technology in the dual-core “Wolfdale”  (Xeon 5200 series) and quad-core “Harpertown” processors (Xeon 5400 series) in late 2007, both of which were Tick releases.

The next Tock release was the Intel “Nehalem” microarchitecture (Xeon 5500 series), which used a 45nm process technology, introduced in late 2008. In 2010, Intel released a Tick release, code-named “Westmere” (Xeon 5600 series) that shrank to 32nm process technology in the server space. In 2011, the Sandy Bridge Tock release debuted with the E3-1200 series for single socket servers and workstations.  All of these other examples are for two socket servers, but Intel uses Tick Tock for all of their processors. Figure 2 shows the recent and upcoming Tick-Tock releases in the two socket space.

Type Year Process Models Code Name
Tock 2006 65nm 5300 Core 2 Clovertown
Tick 2007 45nm 5400 Core 2 Harpertown
Tock 2008 45nm 5500 Nehalem-EP
Tick 2010 32nm 5600 Westmere-EP
Tock 2011 32nm E5 Sandy Bridge-EP
Tick 2012 22nm ?? Ivy Bridge
Tock 2013 22nm ?? Haswell

Figure 2: Intel’s Tick Tock Milestones


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