Intel introduced its Xeon 5500 Series family of server chips today — chips it hopes will be the standard for data centers of the future.

The chips (formerly code-named Nehalem) are the server variant of the Core i7 microprocessor that Intel introduced in November. They include a new memory subsystem that makes them more power efficient. As such, the chips close the gap in performance that Advanced Micro Devices has had with its Opteron family of microprocessors since 2003.

AMD launched its own series of new server microprocessors back in the fall and refreshed its server line-up in January. Intel’s new chips will go head to head against those AMD chips. Phil Hughes, an AMD spokesman, noted that the company has its code-named Istanbul chips with six cores coming later this year. Server makers can put two sets of four-core Xeon 5500 Series chips in each server. And next year, AMD plans to launch a 12-core server chip.

Pat Gelsinger, senior vice president and general manager of the digital enterprise group at Intel, said the new Xeon 5500 Series chips are engineering marvels that require as much engineering resources as the design of a supersonic jet. He said the new chips are 71 to 152 percent faster at running applications than Intel’s previous Xeon chips. In that sense, he said, the performance gains with the Xeon 5500 Series are the biggest since Intel introduced the Pentium Pro server processor in 1995.

If a company had 184 Intel Xeon single-core servers in 1995, the company could replace them with 21 Intel Xeon 5500 processors and get a payback in eight months while reducing energy costs by 90 percent, Gelsinger said.

More than 100 applications have been optimized for the Xeon 5500 Series chips, with a third of those seeing a doubling of performance, Gelsinger said. Since the chip is adaptable, it can be adjusted to handle work loads in Internet data centers, making it easier to do cloud computing, where applications are hosted in servers rather than on desktops.

The new chips are based on a 45-nanometer manufacturing process first introduced with Intel’s laptop chips a couple of years ago. Intel has also introduced a series of chips that surround the Xeon 5500 chips and allow them to fit within a typical server system. The new chips have a turbo mode — akin to circuit breakers in a home — that can throttle back or rev up the processing cores on the chip, depending on the workload or the need for power efficiency. The Xeon 5500 Series chips have four cores, or processing units, on each chip.

The earliest target for the new chips is high-performance computing for scientific and engineering applications. Customers such as NASA and SciNet say they plan to use the new processors in scientific supercomputers that handle tasks such as digesting data from satellites. Other markets include military and aerospace technologies, medical imaging, and communications infrastructure.

Despite the economic downturn, Gelsinger said the server market is healthier than the overall computer market, since there are segments where new technologies are being introduced and adopted now. Intel made the announcement at an event at its Santa Clara, Calif. headquarters today. It had representatives from a variety of industries — Savvis, Humana, eBay, and BP  — on hand to tout the improved computing power of the new chips. There are a total of 230 server designs in the works based on the Xeon 5500 Series chips.