Now that the cream of the crop of the Sandy Bridge generation moves towards the end of Q1 2012, what's the point of rushing its socket-compatible follow-on? After all, time has to be given for the platform to run its course and the only real competition is Intel themselves…
Happy with your current Dual 'Westmere' Xeons – especially if running overclocked above 4 GHz on EVGA SR-2 maybe – but hungry for more power? Well, you may have to wait a while longer, since it is still roughly three months till their successors, the Xeon E5 class Sandy Bridge EP chips in the Socket 2011 platform appear. These are, as we wrote countless times here, the true fully enabled 8-core 20 MB L3 cache chips, unlike their early desktop brethren with some1/4 of the chip disabled to allow high core speeds with adequate desktop TDP.
To make the platform surely available at that point in time, Intel is also expected to allow the Patsburg chipset versions without 6 GBps SAS support to stay on permanently available and endorsed during the Sandy Bridge EP generation, and the full feature versions later in 2012. All would support the 10-core, 25 MB L3 cache follow on Ivy Bridge EP as well.
Talking about Ivy Bridge EP, should we expect it earlier then, since it shouldn't be affected by the Sandy Bridge EP delays? Well, the deep throats tell us a firm 'no', suggesting roughly a firm year or even a bit more space between the two. If, say, Sandy Bridge EP is 'officially' with us three months from now, the Ivy Bridge EP may take as much as 18 months from today to publicly appear on the shelves – yes, we're talking of close to mid of 2013 here, about the same as Haswell desktop platform.
The implications? Well, when purchasing that Xeon E5, go ahead and get the speed bin you really need for a long time, don't just get the cheapest bin to save money, and then wait in hope for the Ivy Bridge EP replacement in the same socket. After all, once the Ivy Bridge EP does appear, the newer chipset revisions as well as newer boards with optimised memory layout to support DDR3-1866 support by Ivy Bridge will be out there, so may as well just replace it all.
Also, count on at least two stepping-based clock-boost updates to Xeon E5 within the Sandy Bridge EP generation itself. One would obviously be the mid-year 'D stepping' as usual, and the other one – especially if pigs can fly and somehow the competition churns out something truly competitive – would be the 'last breath' stepping like the Core i7 990 or Xeon 5690 from the Westmere generation. That one, as we all know, provided extra one-step clock boost and also further improved overclocking capabilities. In this case, who knows, the PCIe v3 validations could also benefit with further steppings, although – officially – there may never be anything stated to that extent. And, yes, the 'unlocked' version for OC on boards like EVGA SR-X too.
Finally, for the desktop user populace, it is almost definite that one of these two likely future major steppings will now enable a true fully enabled 8-core 20 MB L3 desktop Core i7 39XX of a sort, once the yields and TDP at the top allow that. The current LGA2011 high end cooling solutions can handle 200W+ of TDP without much problems, and the top mainboards from Asus, Gigabyte and EVGA provide the power drive needed as well. So, a 4.5 GHz 8 core Sandy Bridge E desktop should be a reality by mid-2012.
Either way, Intel doesn't really lose anything, as more time will be there for the Sandy Bridge EP to recoup the investment, and those chips aren't cheap anyway. Yes, they'll sell for thousands of bucks per socket at the high end, but then this platform was one of the most complex and troublesome in the recent history for Intel, it seems – both the behemoth of a die for the microprocessor itself, stretched across multiple usage markets, and then the chipset platform with its own set of issues. If AMD had their 'Piledriver' core updated products to fill in the competitive void faster, maybe then things would speed up, though…