On Tuesday Intel refreshed their server-lineup top to bottom. While the high-end got a past generation refresh based on the Nehalem/Westmere architecture featuring up to 10 cores and 8 sockets, the entry-level servers got updated to Xeon E3-1200 series CPUs which are based on the more recent Sandy Bridge architecture. The chips use the same LGA-1155 as in the desktop – theoretically motherboard vendors could even add support for them.

Intel Xeon Processor E3 1200 Processors bring Intel HD Graphics P3000

For the first time, Intel Xeon Processors bring integrated graphics; E3-1200 Family introduces Intel HD Graphics P3000

There is one thing that stands out with some of these CPUs. Unlike the desktop SKUs, only some models feature the IGP unit, with all but one of these being named Intel HD Graphics P3000. If you recall, in the desktop models the Intel HD Graphics 3000/2000 is used. So what does change in the P-model (short for Professional)? On the surface it appears to be the same as Intel’s HD 3000 – same clocks, same number of execution units, same 3D API support. Checking Intel’s supplemental documentation reveals that it has supposedly "unlocked" graphics performance for professional applications.

Enough with the marketing chit chat, his basically means that it adds support for professional applications. It also states it is "certified and tested with ISV’s", claiming sufficient performance for 3D CAD and basic digital content creation (DCC) applications ? at least on the entry level as another slide clarifies. Does that ring any bells? Until now, Intel had no solution for this market.

Intel HD Graphics P3000 features 12 execution units (shaders, cores) differ from HD 3000 only by optimized driver package - just like GeForce/Quadro and Radeon/FirePro
Intel HD Graphics P3000 features 12 execution units (shaders, cores) differ from HD 3000 only by optimized driver package – just like GeForce/Quadro and Radeon/FirePro

Traditionally it was catered by NVIDIA Quadro and AMD FirePro cards, which feature the same GPU silicon as desktop offerings, but often feature higher frame buffers, professional display connectivity options and on top of that enabled driver software, which enables the fancy performance improvements. This alone allowed them to jack up the price tag considerably, a $400 desktop consumer graphics card could easily reign in at $4000 upwards. Now Intel does basically the same thing. The silicon hasn’t changed at all, but the chip is branded differently and sold at another price point. The difference lies in the software which enables the interfaces needed for the DCC applications to leverage the full potential of the hardware.

At this point it won’t give NVIDIAs and AMDs offerings a run for their money, but it is certainly interesting that Intel chose the same route. As for driver support, at press time there was no driver available at Intel’s website for the P3000 graphics. One can only hope driver support will fare better than their desktop 3D drivers did in the recent past. It is common knowledge that their 3D drivers have repeatedly exhibited bugs and lack of support for certain features, and Intel was accused of "cheating" in 3DMark on more than one occasion even by Futuremark themselves (Software Vertex rendering on Core 2 Quad processors, for instance). Time will tell can Intel’s 3rd party driver development team do a better job than AMD or the markets’ 800-pound gorilla, nVidia.

One thing is certain though… competition will certainly work wonders for businesses.