Intel leans on vendor community to push Itanium 2 sales

Intel believes its latest Itanium 2 processor, launched Monday, will garner sales due to increased ISV support, but one analyst says that it’s too soon to count RISC out yet.

The 64-bit processor, originally codenamed Madison,

arrives almost exactly one year after its McKinley predecessor, but with more support from the software, operating system and OEM communities. IBM, HP and Dell are all planning servers based on the architecture. Dell hasn’t released an Itanium-based machine since the processor’s first generation. Also, SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle and BEA (among others) will allow their enterprise software to run on Itanium 2.

“”What we can expect to see is customers that have been considering Itanium as a vehicle to deploy either a mid-tier or back-end solution,”” said Intel of Canada country manager Doug Cooper. “”This gives them some additional scale in terms of absolute performance.””

Cooper said 2003 could be the tipping point for Itanium. Improvements in vendor support and overall performance would allow it to make gains against RISC server architecture.

“”This battle has been going on for some time,”” he said, “”What’s really held that up is that the software and OS story has not been complete. There was always a slightly better solution on Unix or there was a piece missing or there wasn’t the latest port on the software solution. A lot of those things are starting to come together.””

HP, which helped to develop the IA-UX architecture, benchmarked Itanium 2 running on its four-way RX5670 server at 121,000 transactions a minute — a 50 per cent improvement over the previous Itanium 2 chip, McKinley. “”That’s exactly one of the things we need to help support customers,”” said Steve Shaw, business development manager for business critical systems at HP Canada. The company will begin selling Itanium 2 servers under the brand name Integrity.

Madison is Intel’s third generation of Itanium architecture, which may give potential customers the faith they need to adopt Itanium in the enterprise, he added. “”(With) Madison, the third release, we expect the uptake on it to be a lot quicker. . . . We’re going to start seeing more of an adoption now,”” he said, but was wary to predict what might happen to the fourth generation of Itanium (Montecito) when it’s released a year to 18 months from now.

If Madison doesn’t grip the market as well as HP hopes, it still has its own RISC business to fall back on, said Shaw. “”The PA-RISC processors, along with Alpha, are not done yet. Those PA-RISC processor lines have at least two more generations yet to come and Alpha has at least one more generation to come.””

Itanium will likely take some share away from RISC and the 32-bit x86 market, but RISC is still alive and well, said IDC Canada Ltd. analyst Alan Freedman. That may change when HP moves to an all Itanium server architecture, but that’s still several years away. Freedman said HP may stretch its deadline to as late as 2007. “”That’s when the real change is going to happen. That’s when we’ll see the uptake of IA-64 really start to take off and there will be a noticeable decline in RISC,”” he said.

What will stand in Itanium’s favour is its compatibility with the McKinley version, according to both Intel and HP. “”Which means manufacturers get to leverage the existing design, so this CPU chip will go into the same socket from other boards,”” said Cooper.

HP has built into its Itanium sales pitch a migration path so customers can pull the McKinley processor from their server boxes and drop in Madison. Even its PA-RISC servers will be upgradable to Itanium. “”There’s a strong investment protection capability that goes along with our strategy,”” said Shaw.

Microsoft support for Itanium through the recent release of its Server 2003 OS may also be a boon to processor sales, said Cooper but Freedman disagreed. He said people will sit out a few generations of Server 2003 before using it for heavy-lifting enterprise applications like data mining.

Itanium 2 is available with 6 MB, 4 MB or 3 MB of level three cache. A low-cost alternative for two-way servers, Deerfield, will be released this year. Intel also launched its latest Xeon processor for mid-range servers on Monday.

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