HP co-created the architecture underlying the 64-bit chip family Intel is building, but as late as this year its engineers have raised questions about shifting to the new design, said Duane Zitzner, president of HP's computer systems group.
Six months ago, HP, ever methodical about making sure it's headed the right direction, revisited its plans for moving to the IA-64 architecture and phasing out its own PA-RISC chips. As in the past, HP came to the same conclusion: It will move to the new architecture but only gradually phase out its own chips.
"Do we believe the technology is going to fly?" Zitzner asked at a meeting with reporters yesterday. "The feeling was it would."
But the fact that HP revisited the question at all is significant in light of the fact that HP invented IA-64, an architecture it called Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC), and has committed its entire server line to the new design.
HP approached Intel in 1994 to build the chips, believing that without the support of a high-volume manufacturer, the chip would be forever trapped in the comparatively small market of high-end proprietary designs.
But the chip was delayed about two years from when HP expected it, Ziztner said. The result was increasing emphasis on extensions to Intel's current IA-32 architecture, including today's Xeon chip for servers and its successor due next year, Foster.
HP has tended to be more interested in the second generation of IA-64 chips, code-named McKinley. The first generation, Itanium, due later this year, will appeal mostly to niche markets such as electronics design and data warehousing, Zitzner said.
Dirk Down, head of marketing for HP's IA-64 systems, said early IA-64 computers are "a development environment. You're not going to put this stuff near your data center for several years."
Despite these reservations, HP is committed to IA-64 in the long term because it's convinced the EPIC architecture will last for decades, long after current RISC (reduced instruction set computing) and CISC (complex instruction set computing) architectures run out of steam.
In addition, the higher-volume production of IA-64 chips used by HP, Compaq, IBM, Dell and others will mean the chips will cost far less than RISC designs such as Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc.
HP has funded its PA-RISC chips for two more years and three more generations past the current 8600 model. But after the 8900, that's it, Zitzner said.
"I'm going to burn all the boats at the beach. I'm not going to go beyond that," Zitzner said. "We're going to bet the future of the systems business" on IA-64.
The transition will be very gradual, HP predicted, with IA-64 systems not outselling PA-RISC systems until 2005, Ziztner predicted.
The next PA-RISC system due out is "Superdome," scheduled to arrive in November or December, Zitzner said. Superdome will be able to accommodate as many as 64 processors and by combining four such systems can in effect act as a system with 256 processors, he said.
The Superdome machine, like the lower-end L-class, N-class and A-class Unix servers already for sale, will be able to use either PA-RISC chips or IA-64 chips when they arrive, Zitzner said.
Despite having helped invent IA-64, HP gets no special breaks from Intel in buying the chip, Zitzner said. HP pays the same price as its competitors and receives no royalties, he said.
But HP benefits because its familiarity with the IA-64 design means it can do a better job designing the support chips that enable IA-64 processors to be plugged into a system, he said.
Another advantage HP has is that through a technology called "dynamic translation," IA-64 computers will be able to run software written for PA-RISC systems without modification. IBM, Compaq, Sun and SGI won't have that feature with their existing RISC-based computers.
However, the dynamic translation technology still needs to be sped up, said Down.