Intel aims high with Itanium server chip

Intel pulled back the curtain Tuesday on its long-awaited Itanium processor, promising a new wave of competition in the server and workstation markets which eventually could result in lower prices and more choices for end users. Hewlett-Packard and IBM were among a raft of server makers who detailed plans for Itanium-based servers and workstations that will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months. Dell already had announced plans to offer a rackmount server, expected to ship in mid-July, based on the new chip.

Itanium is the product of a seven-year joint development effort by Intel and HP and sports features that make it very different from Intel's existing PC and server chips. Most notably, Itanium is a 64-bit processor, which makes it better suited to running large databases and corporate applications such as data mining and online transaction processing. Intel's existing chips process data in 32-bit chunks.

Intel hopes Itanium will help it move up the food chain to compete with powerful Unix-based systems from the likes Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM and HP, which dominate the midrange and high-end server markets today. Those machines run proprietary versions of Unix and specialized, 64-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors developed in-house by their respective vendors.

Itanium systems will be offered with a variety of operating systems including Microsoft Windows, various Linux distributions, and versions of Unix from IBM and HP. The servers and workstations are widely expected to be priced lower than their RISC-based counterparts, and corporations accustomed to relying on a single Unix vendor for their big servers will have the option to shop around for Itanium systems.

Unix vendors including HP and IBM have pledged to continue developing their proprietary RISC chips even while they promote servers and workstations based on Itanium. Only Sun has shunned the Itanium crowd, arguing that its decision to stay focussed on a single, proven platform will give it the edge over its rivals.

Itanium is unlikely to shake up the server market overnight, analysts and server vendors have said. Corporate buyers, never accused of being risk takers, will tread cautiously as they explore the new platform, and the availability of compatible applications may also limit adoption rates early on. In addition, Intel plans to release a more powerful follow-on to Itanium next year dubbed McKinley, and some analysts have said they expect that chip to make a greater impression.

"This is the beginning of a large scale industry transition," said David Graves, a spokesman for Dell's Precision workstations division. "Obviously, in a transition like this, things don't happen overnight."

Intel's hardware partners on Tuesday unwrapped a variety of servers and workstations based on the new chip. For the most part, vendors said they won't be ready to discuss pricing until the systems actually begin shipping.

HP announced an RX4610 server that will run on up to four Itanium processors, a 16-way RX9610 server, and a two-way i2000 workstation. The systems will be offered with HP-UX (HP's version of Unix), Red Hat Inc.'s Linux distribution, and a 64-bit version of Windows. The workstation and RX4610 server are due to go on sale within the next quarter, with the 16-way machine to follow soon after, an HP spokesman said.

IBM announced an eServer x380 which will be available with up to four Itanium processors and 64G bytes of memory. The server can scale out to hundreds of nodes and is suitable for running data intensive applications such as data mining and data warehousing, online transaction processing and security applications, IBM said.

The company also announced an IntelliStation Z Pro workstation, which is due to be available June 29 priced from US$16,799.

Dell, meanwhile, announced last week a PowerEdge 7150 server which will use up to four Itanium processors running at 733MHz or 800MHz and support up to 64G-bytes of memory. The rackmount server, designed for use in datacenters, will be offered with Red Hat Linux or Microsoft Windows, officials said. A "middle of the range" server configured with two Itanium processors and 16G bytes of memory will be priced just below $30,000, a Dell spokesman said Tuesday. A server with four processors and 64G bytes of memory will be priced in the high $60,000 or low $70,000 range, he said.

Dell said it is working with more than 20 software companies, including SAP AG, Veritas Software and IBM Corp.'s DB2 division, to convert applications for use with its Itanium servers.

Dell also unwrapped a new Precision Workstation 730 which it plans to make available worldwide later this year. It pitched the system as a good testing platform for companies thinking of migrating applications to the new Intel architecture. Customers running scientific applications, creating digital content or doing computer aided design work should also benefit, Dell said.

Pricing for the workstation starts at $7,999, and the system features a single, 733MHz Itanium chip, 1G byte of SDRAM (synchronous dynamic random access memory), a Matrox Millenium G450 graphics card, and an 18G byte hard disk drive, Dell said in a statement.

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