Intel turns back the clock to beat Sun

Intel presents its Itanium processor as a key part of the company's future, but company executives here at the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) seemed bent on comparing the chip to one from a competitor's past.

Mike Fister, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group, opened the company's flagship conference with a look at the 64-bit Itanium processor and how it compared with chips from Sun Microsystems Inc. To bolster its case using a benchmark for financial services software, Intel put its second-generation Itanium chip, code-named McKinley, up against a Sun UltraSPARC II. The example was taken from an actual financial services company that migrated to the McKinley server platform, Fister said.

Not surprisingly, the 1GHz McKinley chip -- not due to appear in servers until mid-year -- beat the 400MHz Sun chip with 20 times the performance.

"That's amazing," Fister said, during his keynote.

Although it may have amazed Fister, users may be less impressed, because the Sun chip used in the benchmark is quickly heading toward the end of its life. Today, Sun is selling 900MHz chips using its UltraSPARC III architecture across much of its product line. In addition, the Sun Enterprise 450 server used in the benchmark is on the low end of Sun's line and is not the typical system touted by Sun as the answer for a financial services customer. The product is now being phased out as the 900MHz server platform takes its place, a Sun spokeswoman said.

In addition, to get the best performance out of its McKinley chip, Intel needed to recompile the software -- not an easy task. Companies will need to recompile many applications to take advantage of Intel's 64-bit chip because of major differences between the new chip and Intel's 32-bit processors. Sun's 32-bit and 64-bit chips are compatible, so applications don't have to be recompiled to run on the latest version.

"You are comparing an old system and old implementation against a new system and new implementation," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research Inc., in Scottsdale, Arizona. "I am sure this was one of the better examples that Intel found in its customer base."

Although the conditions for the benchmark may have been tilted in Intel's favor, McCarron said the test helped shed light on Intel's performance with high-end software.

"I think it is a relevant comparison in terms of giving someone context as to where McKinley is," he said.

To its credit, Intel did showcase a couple of interesting advances using its Itanium technology at IDF.

During his keynote, Fister let it slip that Deerfield -- a follow-on to McKinley -- will run at close to 70 watts. This low level of power consumption should help Intel compete in the two-processor server space.

In addition, Intel showed its 870 chipset due out at mid-year for two-processor and four-processor McKinley servers. A number of large server makers are expected to use the chipset in their McKinley products.

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