Intel will be introducing their first Sandy Bridge CPUs in the coming months, which we already know has Linux graphics support well underway, but for now the top-end Intel desktop processors are the Gulftown CPUs that were introduced earlier this year. The Gulftown CPUs boast six physical processing cores with Hyper Threading to put the total thread count per CPU at 12. Besides putting 12 processing threads at your disposal, these CPUs are built upon the 32nm die shrink of Nehalem and boast 12MB of L3 cache. The first Gulftown desktop product to launch was the Intel Core i7 980X, which was quickly followed by the Core i7 970, and we now finally have the chance to test out this incredibly fast but expensive processor under Linux.
The Intel Core i7 980X Extreme Edition is a $1000 USD processor that is clocked at 3.33GHz and has a maximum turbo frequency of 3.60GHz. The clock speeds are the primary difference between the Core i7 980X and Core i7 970, with the latter arriving clocked at 3.2GHz and a turbo frequency of 3.46GHz, but is priced over $100 USD less than the Extreme Edition part. The QPI speed is also at 4.8 GT/s for the i7-970 and 6.4 GT/s for the i7-980X. The Gulftown desktop processors utilize Intel's QPI (QuickPath Interconnect) interface, offer 256KB of L2 cache per physical core, have a TDP rating of 130 Watts, utilize the LGA-1366 socket, support through SSE 4.2, and again they have 12MB of L3 cache and are built on a 32nm process. The only other processor coming close to these CPUs right now would be the Intel Core i7 975 Extreme Edition, which also breaches the $1000 price barrier, but is based upon the older Bloomfield architecture while being a 3.33GHz quad-core + Hyper Threading 45nm CPU. Falling below the Core i7 970 is the Core i7 960, which is another Bloomfield part and will set you back at just over $500 USD for a 3.2GHz processor.
As these processors have already been on the market for a while, there is not too much else we can add that is not already public knowledge, besides talking about Gulftown support under Linux, and most importantly the Linux performance figures. In regards to the actual Linux support for the Intel Core i7 970 under Linux, it should work just fine if you are using a recent Linux kernel. Originally with the Core i7 CPUs there were a few headaches, such as where the CPU would not get clocked up to its turbo frequency when needed, but all of those early problems should now be resolved -- if you're running circa Linux 2.6.33~2.6.34 or later. If ignoring Intel's Poulsbo Linux support problems due to the externally licensed IP, this trouble-free support for Gulftown should not come as much of a surprise considering Intel's involvement with Linux from already working on their Sandy Bridge CPU support under Linux with open-source graphics drivers to a USB 3.0 driver to tools like PowerTop to help reduce your system's power-usage. You are also able to monitor the temperature of all the cores using LM_Sensors and the Linux kernel’s coretemp driver. When trying to use the latest LM_Sensors release with the sensors-detect command for automatically finding all supported sensors/drivers, nothing was detected. However, if manually loading the coretemp kernel module and then running the sensors command, the temperatures should be displayed.
With the Core i7 970 and Core i7 980X Extreme Edition being built for the LGA-1366 socket, this basically means you will need a motherboard with an Intel X58 chipset. We have been using X58 motherboards on Linux for over a year and a half, but still the support is not 100% perfect. LM_Sensors still does not support all of the X58 motherboards out there for being able to monitor the various thermal/fan/power sensors under Linux, but this in no way is a problem specific to the Core i7 series or even Intel for that matter with the LM_Sensors support also a problem with motherboards for AMD processors. There are also other shortcomings on Linux compared to Windows, like with being able to flash your BIOS within Linux on these newer motherboards, but at least all core functionality should be in place when using a recent Linux distribution / kernel.