Itanium stumbles along

Perhaps it's a mark of a maturing industry that much less attention is paid these days to the latest microprocessor release than was the case a few years ago.

Perhaps it’s a mark of a maturing industry that much less attention is paid these days to the latest microprocessor release than was the case a few years ago. And further up the food chain, hardware makers don’t generally attempt to make competitive mileage out of comparing boxes anymore. Is anyone the worse off for it? That’s doubtful – after all, hardware continues to get cheaper and more capable, which is what buyers like.

So Intel’s restraint in July when it released the second member of its 64-bit Itanium processor family is becoming the norm. The occasion rated just three sentences in this publication, and no launch event of any kind that I can recall. In the past, lack of recall might have been the telltale sign of having attended a massive launch party lubricated by lethal cocktails. Those days are gone.

In fact, Intel signalled even before the first Itanium processor was launched about 15 months ago that this chip family would be rolled out differently from others. The reason, it told us at the time, was that Itanium was aimed at the enterprise market, which called for a different marketing style than desktop sales. So after the release of the first Itanium, not much more was heard. A year later, Itanium 2 happened along, and still not much was said. Now, however, Itanium is attracting attention, of a mixed kind.

The 64-bit Itanium was billed by Intel as the RISC killer. RISC – or reduced instruction set computing – is the technology favoured by Intel’s 64-bit rivals, Sun and IBM (among others). RISC has always sold itself as being faster than CISC (the C stands for complex), the architecture which Intel uses for its other processors. This is on the basis that less embedded code on the chip enables it to perform more quickly.

The Itanium introduced a new technology, EPIC, for explicitly parallel instruction computing. "Explicit parallelism", Intel says, is designed to overcome the fact that a processor is idle for 60% of the time when it's sequentially chomping through machine code; EPIC allows simultaneous processing of chunks of suitably compiled programs.

Maybe. No one much has been paying attention to all this since Intel explained it a couple of years ago. Certainly, customers haven’t been flocking to the new technology, analyst Gartner reporting that fewer than 3000 Itanium-based servers were sold worldwide last year. The attention Intel didn’t need has been focused on EPIC by former chip maker Intergraph, which last week won a court case in the US that establishes that EPIC infringes on patents it holds. Intel may be forced to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to settle the dispute.

Itanium 2 might be finally getting some of the notice Intel does want. There are tentative signs in the US of organisations adopting them in place of high-end Unix systems. Unisys is touting customers that have swapped Unix and IBM mainframes for its ES7000 enterprise servers, including an eight-way Itanium machine. The customers say lower cost of ownership of the Windows on Intel combination is important in the shift, as is greater ability to integrate the servers with desktop applications. Figures from analyst IDC for Itanium server sales also suggest some momentum is building worldwide, with 2002 sales expected to reach 8000. In 2003, 26,000 are expected to sell, and by 2005 the number is projected to be 380,000.

Intel seems to believe the predictions. At the Intel Developer Forum in Taiwan this month, the head of the company’s enterprise platforms group, Andy Combs, is reported as saying analysts are being impatient in regard to Itanium. As far as he’s concerned, “the Itanium processor family is actually on track with our expectations”. The Itanium 2 is significantly faster than the first member of the family, and future chips will be faster still, Combs says.

New Zealand’s known Itanium users can be counted on the fingers of one hand; in fact, one finger will do. That’s Auckland 3D graphics software developer Right Hemisphere, which was underwhelmed by Itanium’s performance in a workstation role. The company is awaiting delivery of Itanium 2s any day, expecting a more impressive showing from them.

IDC, with its prediction of 380,000 Intanium sales within three years, believes Intel will prevail in its fight for a share of the midrange server market. But the speed at which it happens will depend on IT managers’ willingness to spend – and the analyst knows you to be “famously cautious” – words it uses in a report on Itanium -- when it comes to changing mission-critical platforms.

  • Ingram Micro NZ points out that Robert X Cringely's comments last week (A few ugly rounds) about the company switching to credit card terms for resellers don't relate to this part of the world.
Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Phone him with editorial suggestions on 09 302 8763. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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