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Commentary: A slow assault on Unix

Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip is a major competitive threat to high-end RISC/Unix workstations and servers--but this threat will take some time to develop.

Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip, expected to be introduced at the end of May, is a major competitive threat to high-end RISC/Unix workstations and servers--but this threat will take some time to develop.

Jumping to 64-bit processing is a major

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Itanium to arrive at last
technical accomplishment for Intel. However, a processor is only part of a full computer system. Other component makers must redesign their peripherals to take advantage of 64-bit processing, and computer manufacturers must design full systems around Itanium, which will require time.

This process may be delayed by the promise of a second-generation Itanium chip (McKinley), which is scheduled to be released in about 11 months. We expect some hardware vendors--such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer, and Dell Computer--to introduce initial Itanium systems early to win bragging rights, but the truly commercial systems will be based on McKinley and will be introduced in 2002. The initial systems--particularly 16-way servers from IBM and HP--will expose Unisys's high-end "Wintel" servers as purely tactical offerings.

Windows has been 64-bit-enabled for some time and should run on Itanium systems out of the box. However, software vendors must retune their applications for 64-bit processing before they can deliver a real step forward in performance. This is particularly important for the CAD systems that engineers run on high-end Unix workstations. The same need for application retuning has occurred in past shifts to a new processing architecture, such as the move from 16-bit to 32-bit processing.

The largest initial market for Itanium servers probably will be small and midsize database servers, because the leading Unix-based database systems are already optimized for 64-bit processing on Unix platforms. We expect the initial Itanium servers to be too expensive to compete for the lower and middle tiers of the three-tier Web server architecture, although they may find a place in security servers.

Sixteen-way Itanium servers also may find an early home in the back-end third tier of Web architectures, where their large address space will enable effective management of large amounts of storage and memory and where the software is already optimized for 64-bit computing.

Two and three years down the road
By 2003, we expect 64-bit versions of key applications to start appearing on the market, and by 2004 Itanium will be competing head to head with Unix/RISC, moving Wintel into the high-end server market for the first time. This will definitely provide major competition for Unix vendors, although exactly how much will depend on price and performance.

In the long term, we expect 64-way McKinley servers to deliver huge amounts of performance. But even a 16-way Itanium server this year is not a small platform for the back end.

For the rest of 2001 at least, most consumers should generally adopt a "look but don't touch" policy when it comes to Itanium-based servers. The exceptions will occur when a company has applications that started small on Windows NT and have grown rapidly, such as Oracle databases running on NT as the back end of a multitier Web architecture, an arrangement that would benefit from the raw power of the Itanium processor.

Consumers should view the pre-McKinley Itanium-based servers mainly as compatibility test beds for the performance of key software and the effect of Itanium servers on their computing environments. They should wait until McKinley to do performance testing--because the second-generation chip will increase performance dramatically--and to bring Itanium into production environments.

However, consumers should be aware that any Wintel servers and high-end workstations they buy during the next few months may have a shorter-than-normal life before being replaced with Itanium-based hardware. Also, in a few months as Itanium reaches the marketplace, Intel will reduce the price of its Pentium 4, decreasing the cost and therefore the residual value of units based on that processor.

Meta Group analysts Jack Gold, Dale Kutnick, David Cearley, Mark Shainman, Philip Dawson, Steve Kleynhans, Val Sribar and William Zachmann contributed to this report.

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