Can IA-32 cut it as big iron?

Scott McNealy experienced a rare moment of humility on stage at Comdex in November. Speaking before several thousand of the show's attendees, Sun's chairman and chief executive officer admitted he had made a mistake in underestimating the strength of Intel Corp.'s IA-32 instruction set.

"We whiffed. I wish a heck of a long time ago we'd done the strategy we did with Intel," he said, "That low end x86 product line is now the fastest-growing part of our computer product line in the data center."

McNealy is not alone in underrating the longevity of IA-32, on which Intel's Xeon workstation and server chips are based, among others. Five years ago it seemed the entire IT industry was counting on Intel's 32-bit line to start fizzling out by 2004, to be replaced by Intel's new family of 64-bit processors, called Itanium.

That has not come to pass, and this week IDC lowered its estimate for sales of Itanium systems. The research company expects Itanium sales to hit US$7.5 billion in 2007, down from its previous prediction of US$8.7 billion.

And though Intel executives say they still expect Itanium sales to surpass IA-32-based Xeon volumes sometime near the middle of this decade, the company's 32-bit Xeon line appears to have a long life ahead of it.

"We think there's a lot of runway with Xeon," said Tom Bradicich, IBM Corp.'s chief technology officer for eServer xSeries. "We think Intel has done an excellent job with it."

IBM plans to ship a 32-processor version of its eServer x445 Xeon system this year, and in 2005 it will complete the next generation of its Enterprise X-Architecture (EXA) chipset, which forms the basis of its xSeries line of IA-32 systems. The new chipset will give IBM the capability to build even larger SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) systems for Xeon. "The architecture that we've established could actually go beyond 64-way," he said.

But does anyone want to buy 32-bit big iron?

Dell Inc. is cool to the idea. Last year it dropped plans to ship an eight-way Xeon system. "Xeon is just such a powerful platform that you don't need to add more and more processors in a single box," said Wendy Giever, a Dell spokeswoman. "People don't want to buy a big server and then figure out how to add more applications."

In fact, the only vendor currently selling 32-way Xeon systems is Unisys Corp., which claims to have sold only about 300 of its ES7000 servers in 32-processor configurations.

"Anything above four-way Xeon is a relatively niche market," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, New Hampshire-based industry research firm. "The market for these kind of really big systems is really not increasing," he said.

Xeon's 32-bit architecture also limits the amount of memory that can be attached to a large SMP machine, said Haff. Sixty-four-bit chips like Itanium or UltraSparc can support far more memory than the 64G bytes available to 32-bit systems, he said. Because of this, and due to the fact that the individual applications running on 64-bit systems can also access much more memory than their 32-bit counterparts, IA-32 will only ever have limited appeal in the data center, Haff said.

While IBM's Bradicich concedes that 64-bit systems may have more appeal for database and mathematical- or security-intensive computing, he believes that large-scale 32-bit systems may gain traction as a platform for consolidating certain types of applications.

Big iron Xeon servers are working out for Helmut Porcher, the director of operations and systems software with TIES, a non-profit organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota, that provides information technology services to local school districts. Last September, TIES finished a migration of payroll, human resource and financial accounting systems to three 32-processor ES7000 servers built by Unisys.

TIES has partitioned each of its ES7000 servers into two 16-processor configurations because of limitations in the Windows 2000 Datacenter Server operating system and Unisys development tools it is using. However, Porcher expects to be able to run all 32 processors on each of his ES7000s as a single system within nine months, as his organization upgrades to Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition.

While it would be possible for TIES to run its applications on a server farm of four-way systems, that kind of configuration would be harder to manage, said Porcher. "I would like to reduce the number of instances of the operating system that we're running," he said. "That is going to reduce some of our management overhead."

IBM hopes that advances in its virtualization technology will help to further reduce the management overhead for people like Porcher, but whether that will create a market for 64-way Xeon systems remains unclear.

A 64-way Xeon computer would not be difficult for IBM to create when its next-generation EXA chip set becomes available next year, Bradicich said. What might be more difficult, however, is finding customers who would buy such a large 32-bit system. "The technology is there to do it.," Bradicich said. "The question is, 'Will we produce a product.' The answer is, 'That hasn't been decided yet.'"