Executive leaves NEC after Itanium controversy

An executive at NEC Solutions (America) Inc. has left the company just two weeks after he made controversial statements about the role Intel Corp.'s Itanium processor would play in future of the server market, feeling pressure from both NEC and Intel to depart.

Leonard Tsai, former chief technologist at NEC Solutions, said at a conference in mid-July that it would take years for engineers to learn the EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) instruction set used in the Itanium chips, and that this would delay the adoption of the chip. These remarks by Tsai surprised industry observers because NEC produces some of the largest Itanium-based servers. Tsai confirmed in an e-mail message to IDG News Service that he left NEC Solutions -- a unit of Japan's NEC Corp. -- on Aug. 1 as a result of differing views on the Itanium chip.

"I believe that Itanium has its place, but not as the overall panacea for 64-bit (computing) like ... Intel is drum-beating to the world," Tsai wrote in an e-mail message.

Intel has pushed Itanium as its offering in the 64-bit server market currently dominated by IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. Intel released the second-generation Itanium 2 processor earlier this year, and NEC uses it in a high-end 32-processor server. After more than ten years of development efforts between Intel and Hewlett-Packard Co., the Itanium chip has captured a small chunk of the server market and is not expected to generate large amounts of revenue for either company for several years, according to analysts.

During the Platform Conference in July, in San Jose, California, Tsai said he expected it to take many years for Itanium to take off due to the new EPIC instruction set. Users are more familiar with the RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architectures used by Sun, IBM and HP, so it is easier to tune RISC-based servers for the best performance. It will take a massive effort to educate enough people about EPIC and the Itanium processors to make them successful, Tsai said. He also added that Intel had "bullied" NEC into picking Itanium for its servers and that HP, as co-designer of EPIC, received preferential treatment from Intel.

These comments from Tsai surprised Intel, which boasted about the performance of NEC servers during its Intel Developer Forum (IDF) held in San Jose this week.

"(NEC's) product lines are inconsistent with what (Tsai) talks about," said Mike Fister, senior vice president and general manager of Intel's enterprise platforms group, during an interview at IDF.

Fister said he sent e-mail to Kazuhiko Kobayashi, company deputy president of NEC Solutions, to inquire about Tsai's statements.

"Kobayashi wrote back to me and said, "Oh my gosh, let me make the situation better,'" Fister said, during the interview.

"This guy has his own opinions and does not represent the opinions of NEC," Fister added.

Although Tsai traced his departure to a disagreement over Itanium, he said that he left NEC "under good will."

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with the consulting company Insight 64, in Saratoga, California, served as a panel moderator at the Platform Conference when Tsai made his original remarks and said the former NEC Solutions executive has a history of being outspoken.

"I would probably agree that Len was speaking for Len and not NEC," Brookwood said. "Len is a very outspoken kind of guy, and he always has been. One of the reasons we had him on the panel was to stir things up, and boy, did he ever. I did not think he would be that outspoken, though."

Brookwood said Tsai's remarks were accurate in that parts of the Itanium architecture are very complex, but he added that the complexity will affect only a small class of engineers.

"There is a fair amount of complexity in the Itanium software model," Brookwood said. "If somebody wants to program the machines at the hardware level, it takes a lot of work, but the guys who really have to do that are the folks who write some very specific operating system routines and the ones that write compilers that translate from FORTRAN or C, for example, into the Itanium language. The number of people who need to understand it at that level is measured in the high tens or low hundreds in the world."

Such costs associated with the Itanium learning curve will probably be offset by the chip's wide industry adoption. Moving software from an NEC Itanium server to an HP Itanium server, for example, will cost far less than switching from a Sun UltraSPARC system to a Power system from IBM.

"My angle is, there are performance issues and economics issues that make Itanium a much more interesting and important element in the computing universe than just the architecture itself," Brookwood said.

Tsai said that NEC is making the best use of Itanium thus far by going with larger systems as opposed to the smaller servers released by HP thus far.

"NEC's approach to Itanium is the right way," he wrote in an e-mail message. "(They) take it from the beginning to (the) very high end as a possible solution to replace aged mainframe. . .Building (two-processor Itanium systems) or (single-processor) workstations is begging the question of sanity."

An NEC Solutions spokesman declined to comment on Tsai's departure, saying he was unaware of the move.

Sun had used Tsai's statements earlier this year in its promotional material attacking the Itanium processor.

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