Intel Corp. is heating up its 64-bit computing assault with the arrival of Deerfield in late 2003, paving the way for broad industry adoption of its architecture for rack-mounted servers.
Yet according to analysts, Intel will have a tough time usurping IBM's and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s RISC-based 64-bit chips with the Itanium 2 processor family's EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) architecture.
EPIC's lack of backward compatibility with 32-bit chips has hindered adoption of Itanium, causing software vendors undertake the laborious task of rewriting enterprise applications to suit the 64-bit architecture.
Despite the fact that companies such as Oracle Corp. have invested in porting their applications to Itanium, Justin Rattner, a senior fellow at Porland, Ore.-based Intel, conceded that many hurdles remain.
"We were surprised at the lack of software [available for Itanium]," Rattner said during a press briefing last week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose, Calif.
Meanwhile IBM Corp., which continues to invest in its 64-bit platform, announced on Friday the four-way p630 server, a revision to its Power processor line.
The system uses IBM's Power4+ chip, the successor to the Power4 chip used in high-end Unix servers. IBM has been working to firm up its midrange and low-end Unix servers with the Power4+ chip and its Power5 replacement, due in 2004.
IBM executives said they are working to ensure the Power processor will work well in smaller systems, in part to compete against Sun and Intel.
Sun for its part is stretching its chip investment across a wide range of products. The company already sells several versions of its UltraSparc processor, each offering a speed, level of power consumption, and set of high-end features targeted at different echelons of the server market.
"The biggest question with the Itanium family is which server vendors will really use the chips," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc.
Hewlett-Packard Co. is one company counting on Itanium to succeed, having planned to rearchitect its server stack to support the EPIC chips by 2004 and to phase out its PA-RISC and Alpha architectures.
"Intel's challenge is to drive adoption [beyond that] of Hewlett-Packard," Haff said. "To succeed beyond its niche, Intel needs to support a wide range of capabilities."
Deerfield, preannounced at the Intel Developer Forum this week, is a scaled-down version of Intel's existing Itanium 2. Although its speed is slower than that of the current Itanium processor -- 1GHz as compared to 1.5GHz - Deerfield consumes half the power, making it better positioned for blade servers and dual-processor servers, according to Barbara Grimes, an Intel representative.
Illuminata'sHaff said that with Deerfield -- Intel's first step into the 64-bit realm -- the company is "going after the low end: servers that don't need so much performance or workstations that need large memory."
Intel also detailed plans at its developer forum for additional 64-bit processors aimed at high-end servers and mainframe-class systems. The high-end server chip, code-named Madison, will arrive later this year; Montecito, the chip to be equipped for the mainframe, will be out in 2004.
-- Mark Jones contributed to this article.