Panel debates the merits of Itanium

A panel of chip experts took aim at Intel Corp.'s Itanium processor at a conference Tuesday with rivals and even an Itanium server seller saying a transition to the new chip will take many years and will require huge investments in both money and time.

Executives from Sun Microsystems Inc, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., NEC Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. gathered at the Platform Conference here to debate the merits of 64-bit processors and battle over which vendor architectures will dominate the market over the next few years.

While Jerry Huck, chief architect at HP, defended Itanium, the rest of the panel charged that costs associated with designing software for the chip and educating engineers about its EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) architecture could offset price and performance gains promised by Intel.

"Learning EPIC instructions will take time," said Len Tsai, chief architect at NEC. "It will take 15 years to educate people about it. That's half a generation, and I am getting old."

That education process, which encompasses the undergraduate university level through those already in the workforce, is part of the massive cost associated with the move to Itanium architecture, in Tsai's view.

Tsai's remarks came as a bit of a surprise since NEC plans to roll out some of the biggest servers based on the Itanium 2 processor, which was announced this month by Intel. NEC, however, "had no choice" but to pick Itanium for its future servers as the company would not be willing to use competitors' RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips already on the market from Sun and IBM, Tsai said in a brief interview after the panel discussion.

The lucrative market for 64-bit based chips that can address larger amounts of memory and provide better performance than 32-bit chips has heated up in recent months. Along with Intel's introduction of Itanium 2, AMD early next year will unveil its 64-bit Opteron processor, which uses the current x86 instruction set instead of the new EPIC architecture. Intel and AMD hope to steal some of the RISC market dominated by Sun, IBM and HP.

Higher-priced RISC-based servers account for the vast majority of server revenue even though far fewer 64-bit servers are shipped compared to 32-bit systems, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with the consulting company Insight 64 in Saratoga, California, and the panel discussion moderator.

Brookwood predicted that AMD and Intel chips will outperform all of the RISC processors on some industry benchmarks by 2003 and then increase their lead in 2004.

"Industry standard processors will claim the performance lead over proprietary processors like SPARC (Sun) and Power (IBM) in the coming future," Brookwood said.

While Intel and AMD may have faster chips, Sun and NEC said that several factors contribute to the overall performance and cost of a server.

"We've had 64-bit compatibility with SPARC and have a large application base," said David Tuttle, senior director of engineering at Sun.

Sun customers will not need to recompile their applications or search for third-party applications to run on UltraSPARC chips, since the company has sold 64-bit processors for several years, Tuttle said. In addition, Sun's Solaris operating system has wide industry software support, particularly with high-end applications.

The software cost savings should offset some of the chip manufacturing leads that Intel and AMD hold, he said.

In addition, Tsai charged that the processor makes up a small part of the overall cost and performance of a server. Customers are looking for companies that can help them set up high performance, custom hardware configurations and that provide strong technical support. Companies like NEC and Sun with experience managing data centers will win the most business, he said.

With IBM and Intel declining to attend the panel, HP's Huck was the lone Itanium advocate and claimed porting software to the Itanium architecture is not as hard as some companies suggest. In addition, HP, Intel, Microsoft Corp. and others are spending millions to make sure applications will run well on Itanium.

"It has not at all taken anyone that long to learn the instruction set," Huck said. "Maybe (Tsai) is getting a little old. We have people coming into our organization that have learned it quickly."

As expected, Wayne Meretsky, a fellow at AMD, agreed that migrating software to Itanium is a grand challenge and urged the conference attendees to look at the Opteron chips. The Opteron processor will use the same instruction set as its 32-bit chips. Users will need to recompile 64-bit applications to get the best performance out of the architecture, but Meretsky insisted that the learning curve for Opteron will be much lower than for Itanium.

"The x86 compatibility allows ports to work faster," Meretsky said. "At the end of the day, performance tuning and debugging is all done at an architectural level. People need to understand how the machine works to deliver world class, state-of-the-art performance."

All of the executives on the panel agreed the changes taking place in 64-bit computing will shake up the market in the coming years. Users, however, should benefit from vastly improved performance in server systems. The increased attention on 64-bit computing should also push more software makers to design and tune their applications to take advantage of larger memory resources.

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