Itanium Away

Eight years after Digital introduced the first of its 64-bit Alpha systems, Intel is starting to crank up the marketing machine for the release of its 64-bit Itanium processor.

Eight years after Digital introduced the first of its 64-bit Alpha systems, Intel is starting to crank up the marketing machine for the release of its 64-bit Itanium processor.

That's right - eight years later. Yet if you were to listen to Intel on the virtues of 64-bit computing, you'd think it had invented it. Not that Digital's ground-breaking efforts did much for its fortunes. The Alpha family quickly (by 1994) overtook sales of Digital's venerable VAX (no, not the vacuum cleaner; the midrange machines that ran the proprietary VMS operating system so successfully for so many New Zealand organisations). But the company lost a lot of money over a prolonged period and was pounced on by up-and-comer Compaq. Digital's first 64-bit systems, the AXP workstation and server ranges, came on the market at prices starting at about $20,000, hitting more than $400,000 for a mainframe-class machine. A technical workstation came out a year later for about $14,000. When the first Itanium machines are released, their starting prices probably won't look that dissimilar to Digital's of eight years ago. The processor will sell to hardware vendors for about the same price as Intel's Xeon, the company says. How will Itanium differ from Alpha? The Alpha, which lives on in Compaq's AlphaServer range, was a RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processor. RISC proponents have long maintained that that "reduced" implies a speed advantage over the CISC ("c" for complex) architecture of Intel's x86 and Pentium processor families. (Incidentally, to further demonstrate Intel's late entry into the 64-bit club, it already includes Hewlett-Packard, Sun, NEC and IBM, all of which make RISC processors.) Part of Intel's Itanium pitch is that RISC is passe; EPIC (explicitly parallel instruction computing) is the hot new architecture. EPIC has characteristics that will leave RISC in the dust, according to Intel. And suddenly, also, it starts to play up short-comings we may not even have been aware of that apply to its own existing processors as it tries to persuade us that Itanium is worth upgrading to. One of these deficiencies is the fact that a processor is idle for 60% of the time when it's sequentially chomping through machine code. In a master stroke, EPIC's "explicit parallelism" comes to the rescue, allowing simultaneous processing of chunks of suitably compiled programs. Other cunning pieces of design combine to help an early Itanium prototype outperform a Sun UltraSparc III in a 1024-bit RSA decryption test by more than three times, Intel says (hastening to point out that this is not an official benchmark). Perhaps showing how it is that Intel has risen to dominate the microprocessor market while Digital is history, all of the Itanium cleverness is being put on public show. The processor's microarchitecture is being published on the Web for the first time. Exactly how that information might be of use, I'm not sure (and where on the Web you'll find it I don't know). But what we'll witness with the eventual release of the Itanium (some time in the first half of next year) will be the triumph of marketing over innovation. Anthony Doesburg is Computerworld's editor. He can be contacted at anthony_doesburg@idg.co.nz. Letters for publication can be sent to cw_letters@idg.co.nz.

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