Intel's Itanium finally arrives

The announcement last week that systems based on Intel's long-delayed Itanium processor should start shipping this month was welcome news to users hoping to run large enterprise applications on commodity hardware, users and analysts said.

But it will be at least another year before the operating systems, commercial applications and servers based on the processor are mature enough for this to happen, they said.

"For those who have been champing at the bit for 64-bit Intel hardware, here it is," said Tony Massimini, an analyst at Semico Research Corp., a Phoenix-based chip consultancy. "Those who want better performance, just wait a bit."

Intel last week said that up to 25 vendors are expected to start shipping servers and workstations based on the 64-bit processor later this month. They include Dell Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq Computer Corp., which are all slated to start shipping Itanium boxes in mid-June.

Itanium is the name for Intel's next-generation 64-bit processor family as well as for the first chip in that new generation.

Work on the technology began in June 1994, when Intel and HP announced a joint development agreement to design a generation of processors that would be capable of running high-end x86-based applications and Unix applications equally well.

Itanium processors at one point were expected to ship as early as 1999. Intel claimed that it underestimated the time it would take to develop a processor architecture of this scope, though there have been previous reports of design glitches and problems in the manufacturing process.

The chips are based on a new design called Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing. The design implements features called predication, speculation and explicit parallelism that significantly boost performance over existing CISC- and RISC-based processor architectures, said Intel.

Such features, combined with full 64-bit addressing, large memory support, increased floating-point performance and high-memory bandwidth, make Itanium a good platform for large server and workstation applications, according to the company.

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to install a cluster of 160 IBM Corp. Itanium-based IntelliStation workstations because of the enhanced performance, said Dan Reed, director of the NCSA. "It's early in the path, but so far, the performance we have seen has been spectacular," Reed said.

The NCSA has been testing Itanium systems for a year.

"It has been really excellent performance on even early hardware," agreed David Lifka, chief technical officer at the Cornell Theory Center, which plans to install a 128-processor Dell Itanium cluster to power research applications at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "We have seen it outperforming even late-generation RISC architectures" on certain applications, he said.

However, most corporate users will have to wait until Itanium's successor, known as McKinley, starts shipping sometime next year before they can begin to tap such performance. That's at least how long it is going to take for all of the pieces such as operating systems, compilers, debuggers and software tools needed to optimize applications for Itanium to become available.

"This is a good platform to get your feet wet, but you are probably not ready to run your business on it yet," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at "Microprocessor Report," a newsletter in Sunnyvale, Calif.

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