Intel is set to release its first Xeon chips with 3D transistors this quarter, but it could be a while before you see them in creative workstations.

The company's new Xeon chips will be based on the upcoming Ivy Bridge microarchitecture and initially will be aimed at the emerging category of microservers, Intel said. Microservers are low-power servers with shared components designed mainly for Web serving and cloud applications.

The new chips will replace existing Xeon E3 chips, which are based on the Sandy Bridge microarchitecture. Intel introduced the E3 chips in March last year to jump-start the microserver category, but due to bug-related delays, it's only just released Sandy Bridge-based Xeons for workstations, the Xeon E5 line. We don't expect to see Ivy Bridge-based Xeon E5's until towards the end of this year, or possibly early next year.

The new Xeon microserver chips will outperform their predecessors while drawing the same amount of power, the company said. The driving factors include 3D transistors, which are part of Intel's new 22-nanometer manufacturing process.

Half the power and up to 15% improvement

Intel has claimed that 3D transistors will consume a little less than half the power and be 37 percent faster than its existing 32-nm process chips, which have 2D transistors. The 3D transistor technology, called tri-gate transistors, replaces a flat, two-dimensional arrangement of transistors with a 3D structure that rises up from the silicon substrate.

Enthusiast website Anandtech has measured a 5 percent to 15 percent improvement in CPU performance with Ivy Bridge compared with Sandy Bridge.

Intel's attempts to expand its presence in microservers included a partnership with dense server maker SeaMicro, which was snapped up by AMD for US$334 million (£210 million) in late February. That acquisition was viewed as a setback for Intel, which hit back by saying it was developing its own I/O and chip technology to boost microserver performance.

Microservers will be more relevant as data centers try to operate within physical and economic constraints, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

"When you start looking at high-performance computing, you come to the realisation that the limitation is power. It's inescapable that that becomes the final constraint," Olds said.

Intense competition between Intel and AMD over data centres

Intel and AMD are chasing the microserver market to address those limitations. Intel has held the high ground on performance, while AMD largely competes on price, Olds said.

AMD recently launched the Opteron 3200 server chips for microservers, which the company pitched as a "low-cost-per-core" product. The AMD 3200 chips are priced between US$99 and $129 (£62 to £81), while Intel's E3 chips are priced starting at $189 (£119). Analysts have said that AMD will also replace Intel chips currently being used in SeaMicro servers with Opteron chips.

Intel's new chips bring more performance, but microserver adoption may ultimately depend on what the end application is, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

In some cases, price may matter less for companies that need scalability, McCarron said. Different microserver designs are just reaching the market, and there is intense competition between Intel and AMD for those building mega data centres, in which thousands of servers are deployed to process fast-moving cloud applications, McCarron said.

Intel also said it was on track to release its low-power Atom chip for microservers in the second half of this year. The 64-bit chip will draw six watts of power and have all key server features, including virtualisation and ECC memory. The chip will be made using a 32-nanometer process, so it will not include 3D transistors.