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Intel's Madison chip on parade

Unisys and NEC are expected to provide the first public demonstrations of "Madison," Intel's third-generation Itanium processor, at Intel's Developer Forum on Monday.

Server makers Unisys and NEC are expected to provide the first public demonstrations of "Madison," Intel's third-generation Itanium processor, at Intel's Developer Forum on Monday.

Demonstrations of new processors under carefully controlled circumstances, while a far cry from actual sales, are an important milestone in bringing a new product to market. That importance is elevated for the Itanium line, an unproven and ambitious product family with complex features needed for top-of-the-line servers often using dozens of processors.

The demonstrations Monday, slated for Intel President Paul Otellini's opening keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum, will show off features designed to appeal to high-end customers, according to a source familiar with the plan.

NEC will show a Madison system with 32 processors running SAP's business software, while Unisys will demonstrate upgrading four Itanium 2 processors to Madison processors, a process that will take place without disturbing software running in a separate 12-processor section of the server, sources said.

Unisys said in an advisory it would demonstrate a Madison server but didn't comment further. NEC didn't respond to requests for comment.

The Itanium family is the central element of Intel's effort to crack the market for high-end servers, the computers that run demanding, round-the-clock jobs such as tracking a company's inventory and sales. While Intel processors are used in huge numbers of lower-end servers, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard dominate the high-end market with servers using their own processors.

Sales of Itanium 2 have thus far been lackluster. Market research firm Gartner projects that in 2007, Itanium server sales are projected to reach $4.4 billion, while Sun's UltraSparc-based servers will be at $6 billion and IBM's Power-based servers will be at $8.6 billion.

Both of Monday's demonstrations highlight one feature of the Madison chips: They are "pin-compatible" with their Itanium 2 predecessors, meaning that a computer can easily be upgraded with faster chips. It also means that Itanium server designers such as Unisys, HEC, Hitachi, Hewlett-Packard, SGI and IBM don't have to start their server designs from scratch when each new processor arrives.

Madison's successor, code-named Montecito, also will be pin-compatible with Itanium 2.

Madison largely is the same design as the Itanium 2 but features more high-speed "cache" memory and faster clock speeds. Montecito will be a more dramatic overhaul of the chip circuitry.

Intel announced in June that it had passed another Madison milestone, running several operating systems on prototypes of the chip.

While Itanium systems are still scarce among customers, they're starting to gain respect.

"Given the long gestation and tepid performance of its first generation, we have been resolutely skeptical that the Itanium processor family would achieve its breakout objectives. Itanium 2, however, cracks that skepticism with its stunningly good performance results," Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said in a recent report.

Meanwhile, SGI also plans to trumpet its Itanium systems Monday at the show, detailing the performance of a server with 64 Itanium 2 processors running the Linux operating system. The company plans to begin selling the product early in 2003.