Itanium in the shadows at IDF 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — Itanium took a back seat to Intel Corp.’s next generation micro-architecture announcements this week at its bi-annual developers conference here.

While the Intel Solutions Alliance Community — a vendor coalition that includes Hewlett-Packard Co., Silicon Graphics Inc. and Fujitsu Ltd. — has a booth on the showcase floor and there is a banner hanging in the Moscone Center that asks, “Why RISC it?” the noise coming from upcoming chipsets is drowning out Intel’s high-end chip at this year’s Intel Developer Forum.

Also notably absent at this year’s conference is Apple’s presence, despite all of the hype around Intel’s newest chipsets aimed at the consumer market like Merom and Conroe and portable devices like Intel’s and Microsoft’s Origami.

On Tuesday, Intel unveiled release dates for its dual core platforms for desktop, mobile and server. For the desktop, Conroe will be available in the second half of 2006 as part of Intel’s Professional Business Platform, codenamed Averill. Intel also announced that it will ship three new processors for servers and workstations this year, including the new Xeon-based platform, codenamed Bensley, which will be updated with the new Woodcrest processor by the third quarter of 2006. Developers also got a first-hand look at Intel’s quad-core processor, codenamed Clovertown, which was running the keynote’s Power Point presentation. Clovertown is compatible with the Bensley platform and is slated to ship in early 2007.

Intel Solutions Alliance is a group of vendors that also includes Bull, Platform Solutions Inc. and Unisys, whose aim is to further the adoption of Intel’s Itanium 2 processor in systems. The Alliance recently announced that it will invest $10 billion over the next four years to improve Itanium’s features and functions and bolster its market position. More recently, the CEOs of Intel, HP and Oracle announced further collaboration on Itanium, including a $1 billion pledge over the next five years on Integrity hardware and services from HP chief executive Mark Hurd. On Tuesday keynote speaker Pat Gelsinger, senior vice-president and general manager of the Digital Enterprise Group, said that Itanium currently supports over 6,000 applications — a number that has doubled in the last 12 months.

“We’ve seen this translate into revenue growth to over 2.5 billion in systems revenue,” said Gelsinger, adding that growth will continue as Intel releases the next generation of its Itanium chip, Montecito, in the second quarter of 2006.

Despite these numbers, Intel’s and HP’s explicitly parallel instruction computing (EPIC) platform customer base is far less than that of the RISC vendors (IBM and Sun). At last year’s spring IDF, Intel said Montecito would be released in late 2005. Montecito will be Itanium’s first dual core chip and will deliver 2.5 times the performance of its predecessor at one quarter of the power, according to Intel. The chipmaker has also delayed the release of Montecito’s update, Montvale from 2006 to 2007 and pushed back Tukwila from 2008 to 2009. Poulson, Intel’s sequel to Tukwila, is due out by the end of the decade.

Itanium often misses release dates whereas its Xeon chipset meets or is released ahead of schedule, according to analyst firm Clabby Analytics.

“I’m watching IBM get its products out the door on time. I’m watching Sun get its products out the door on time. I’m watching Itanium flounder in fits and starts. If they can’t get that processor out the door, on time and with the kind of features it needs to compete with IBM, they’re screwed,” said Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics, an analyst firm that specializes in information infrastructure and business process management.

Clabby, who did not attend this week’s conference, recently wrote a report on Itanium’s market position and roadmap execution compared to Intel’s competition from Sun and IBM. In his report, Clabby questioned the wisdom behind Intel’s $10 billion Itanium investment.

“The most important thing to spend it on is the chip,” said Clabby in a telephone interview prior to this week’s IDF show. “There’s no way of telling how much they’re going to spend on the chip.”

Clabby added the funds will likely go towards designing systems for the chip, marketing and sales, which doesn’t do a lot for the chip itself.

An Intel spokesperson declined to comment further on how the money will be spent or on product delays.

The report went on to say that Itanium is getting hammered in the marketplace from Intel’s and rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s hybrid 32-/64-bit microprocessors as businesses are opting for Xeon and Opteron chips for their high-end systems. Intel has said Itanium is targeted at the high-end RISC market while Xeon is aimed at the high-volume, lower-cost market and is best suited to a clustering environment.

Clabby said the types of systems companies buy depends on the kinds of workloads.

“If they’re doing a very heavy transaction environment, those large scale up systems are excellent transaction processors,” said Clabby. “For ERP and CRM, you can get away with two and four way servers.”

Clabby added that some companies would want to scale up to a mainframe architecture for one point of entry, making the system more secure.

Intel Developer Forum wrapped up on Thursday.

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