Dreaming of a PC with 192GB of RAM? Dell makes it reality

Most new desktop PCs have two to four RAM slots that can take up to 4GB modules of DDR2 memory
  • Eric Lai (Computerworld (US))
  • 27 March, 2009 07:07

Dell Inc. announced on Tuesday a new PC that, among its other impressive specs, can be upgraded to sport as much as 192GB of ultra-fast DDR3 RAM.

The Precision T7500 sports 12 memory slots, each of which can take a PC10600 stick (1333 MHz) of up to 16GB.

Most new desktop PCs have two to four RAM slots that can take up to 4GB modules of DDR2 memory that runs between 400 MHz and 1066 MHz in speed.

Not a high-end gamer PC, the Precision T7500 workstation (which starts at $1,800) is aimed at videogame designers, as well as engineers and digital animators.

It's not the only new desktop with huge memory potential. On Tuesday, Lenovo announced its ThinkStation D20 workstation, which can support up to 96GB of 1333 MHz DDR3 RAM.

And last week, Cisco Systems Inc. unveiled blade servers that may reportedly hold up to 384GB of DDR3 memory per blade, or double Dell's offering.

The main exception is Apple Inc. Its new Mac Pro workstations have a relatively modest upper limit of 32GB of DDR3 RAM.

Build it and the gigabytes will come

Hundreds of gigabytes of RAM have been around, though not commonplace, on high-end, many core PC servers for several years, said Jim McGregor, an analyst with In-Stat. He cited servers that process financial transactions in real time, or security software doing CPU-intensive tasks such as facial recognition, as examples.

Also, the 5-year-old 64-bit version of Windows Server can handle up to 1TB of RAM, while the new Windows Server 2008 can take advantage of 2TB of RAM. By contrast, such large amounts of RAM haven't been common on desktop PCs because of the predominance of 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista, which can only handle about 3GB of RAM.

What's jacking up the memory limits on this crop of workstations and blade servers is one common denominator - their use of Intel Corp.'s new Nehalem CPU architecture.

Before Nehalem, PC memory controllers were mounted on the core logic chipset. That meant data traveling between the CPU and the RAM could easily collide with other traffic, McGregor said.

Nehalem uses an integrated memory controller, shortening the distance between the memory and the CPU, and creating multiple, direct pathways between the two, he said.

Also, end users are starting to move to 64-bit versions of Windows Vista. Higher-end flavors such as Vista Business, Enterprise and Ultimate can support PCs with up to 128GB of RAM.

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Nam Hyung Kim, an analyst with iSuppli, said PC makers were also taking advantage of the depressed memory market.

"It's a very good opportunity to move to higher-speed RAM," Kim said. "The market is oversupplied with memory right now. You'll pay very little premium if you pick DDR3 RAM instead of DDR2 RAM."

For instance, the price charged by manufacturers to resellers for a 4GB module of 1066 MHz DDR3 server-class memory is about $120, said Kim. An 8 GB DDR3 memory module of the same speed costs between about $250 and $300 today.

The price of 16GB DDR3 modules remains far loftier, however. They were first announced this month by vendors such as Samsung Electronics and SMART Modular Technologies.

Samsung won't say how much it plans to charge, but SMART is charging PC makers $3,400 today for 16GB 1333 MHz RAM modules, a SMART spokeswoman said.

What if you should need to upgrade?

A single 16GB RAM stick would cost more than double the rest of the Dell Precision T7500 hardware (assuming Dell charges a normal retail markup).

And how about a T7500 with maxed-out memory? That might cost more than $50,000 ($1,800 base price plus $40,800 for 12 sticks of SMART RAM, plus $8,160 given 20% retail markup on RAM by Dell equals $50,760).

A Dell spokesman declined to confirm any prices beyond the base model.

In-Stat's McGregor said that while such maxed-out configurations "may look crazy," for the massive number-crunching needed by engineering and graphics-rendering apps the demand is there.

And while larger sticks of DDR3 RAM are pricey today, that is likely to come down fast.

"It's a chicken and egg thing. You need to get the processors and boards out there before people start to move and so volume can ramp up," McGregor said. "I expect DDR3 prices to fall by half by next year."