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HP touts advantages of Itanium 2

The computer maker formally details its plans for the Itanium 2 processor, a key step in the company's strategy to take on IBM and Sun.

Hewlett-Packard formally detailed its plans for the Itanium 2 processor on Monday, a key step in HP's strategy to take on IBM and Sun.

HP, which co-designed the chip, announced a wide variety of Itanium 2 products, including lower-end two- and four-processor systems that will ship in August, options to upgrade existing servers with the new chip, and eventually a mammoth machine with 128 Itanium processors. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company also released benchmarks touting the price/performance advantages of the new chip, which analysts say back up some of the promises made by Intel and HP about the chip.

"Itanium has now crossed the threshold to compete on par and in some cases to compete with an advantage," said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day.

For example, on the widely used TPC-C test that simulates inventory transactions with a computerized warehouse, an HP rx5670 server with four Itanium 2 processors has a score of 78,000, bettering 55,000 of the IBM x440 system with four Xeon MP processors. The Itanium system also costs less.

Itanium 2 is a key point in HP's strategy to simplify its multiple hardware and software lines while competing with IBM and Sun Microsystems. The processors are used in high-powered workstations and in servers, networked machines for jobs such as keeping track of corporate product sales. Currently, HP uses its own chips, the PA-RISC family, in these products now. Switching to Itanium is expected to help HP, the theory goes, by cutting down independent research and development.

The first Itanium had lopsided performance, doing well only on technical jobs such as physics simulations, but Itanium 2 expands into the much larger market for business software such as SAP's accounting software or tasks that require databases such as Microsoft's SQL Server.

"It wasn't until release of benchmarks by HP and Microsoft around SAP and SQL Server 2000 that we believed the Itanium 2 architecture had the balance to be aggressive both on technical and commercial computing," Day said.

The performance of the new processor family is key for HP in particular as the company places most of its eggs in the Itanium basket. IBM is backing Itanium but heavily investing in its own Power processors, while Sun is pushing its UltraSparc processors while grudgingly adopting low-end 32-bit Intel chips. By contrast, HP will not only adopt Itanium family chips into its machines that compete against Sun and IBM boxes, the company will also eventually insert the chip into the superhigh-end NonStop machines that it acquired in the Compaq Computer merger.

Eventually, HP will support five operating systems on the new processor: Windows, Linux, and three of its own products, HP-UX, OpenVMS and NonStop Kernel.

Itanium is a 64-bit chip, giving it the ability to easily address vast swathes of memory that 32-bit chips such as Intel's Pentium and Xeon can't manage. It also has capabilities for transferring information to and from memory more swiftly, features for accelerating data encryption, and improvements for working in large multiprocessor systems.

"In the longer term, we see it as a two-horse race--us and IBM," said Mark Hudson, worldwide manager for business critical systems at HP, in an interview.

Sun views HP as vulnerable during the transition to Itanium since it will have to persuade customers to dramatically change their software. HP gives short shrift to discussing "the risks, complexities and costs required to recertify, recompile and retest applications for their Itanium 2 products--if equivalent applications for Itanium 2 are available at all," the company said in a statement. As long as they're making a change, customers will find it easier and cheaper to move from HP and Compaq servers to Sun servers, Sun said.

And in an earlier interview the head of Sun's microprocessor group criticized Itanium as a design that dates from outmoded 1970s concepts.

Itanium requires that many computing tasks execute in parallel, but in practice it's very difficult for software to detect that parallelism and keep all parts of the processor fed with data and instructions, said David Yen, promoted this week to be Sun's executive vice president for processor and network security products.

And performance isn't the only issue. Itanium now faces the challenge of rounding up sufficient support from software companies that the systems are actually useful.

"I think from now on, it's a matter of growing the list of applications," Day said.

HP and Intel have a joint program called "Velocity" to hasten software companies' Itanium support and to help customers test their own software.

Sun, with a prestigious list of business partners, is the company to beat when it comes to software support for higher-end servers. The company benefited from the growing use of Unix servers that were more powerful and reliable than Windows systems but less expensive than IBM's mainframes.

HP is also working to improve its Itanium hardware as well as software. While Intel is designing the processor, HP is taking responsibility for much of the rest of the system, including the all-important chipset that links the processor to memory and input-output devices such as network cards or storage systems.

HP's chipset, zx1, is used in its two-processor rx2600 server, its four-processor rx5670 server, its one-processor zx2000 workstation and its two-processor zx6000 workstation. All the systems can be ordered now but won't begin shipping until August, HP said.

The rx2600 has an average price of $16,000; the rx5670 costs $38,000; the zx2000 costs $6,000; and the zx6000 costs $13,000, HP said.

The zx1, code-named Pluto, is one of a host of new chipsets designed to wire Itanium 2 systems. Other chipsets include IBM's Enterprise X Architecture "Summit," Intel's E8870, Hitachi's ColdFusion-2, and other products from SGI, NEC, Unisys and Bull.

But HP has other plans in the pipeline through its "Pinnacles" chipset that will power servers with eight, 16, 32, 64 and eventually 128 Itanium processors. In 2003, HP will provide Pinnacles-based upgrades to its existing PA-RISC servers, all the way up to its 64-processor top-end Superdome system, said Brian Cox, product line manager of HP's Business Critical Systems.

Also in 2003, HP will release its Superdome sequel with 128 PA-RISC processors. Then, at the end of 2003 or the beginning of 2004, the company will release a 128-processor Superdome with Itanium processors.

Though HP's entire PA-RISC line can be upgraded with the Itanium processors, the Itanium and PA-RISC processors can't coexist in the same server, Cox said. In contrast, Sun's higher-end servers can accommodate different speeds of today's UltraSparc III processors and next-generation UltraSparc IV processors.