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HP upgrade path bypasses Merced chip

Hewlett-Packard, which helped design the new 64-bit processor, recommends that some customers bypass the chip and wait for the next one, dubbed McKinley.

SAN FRANCISCO--Although Intel steadfastly maintains that its Merced chip will be more than just a test bed, Hewlett-Packard, co-designer of the chip, recommends that some customers bypass it and wait for the next one.

The release date and performance of Merced has prompted many observers to say that the chip, the first "IA-64" processor, would be merely a test drive for the advanced architecture. HP's point of view, described at a conference here, is the first time that an insider and main proponent of the chip has recommending skipping it.

HP still plans to sell servers based on Merced chips, including servers running Unix, Windows, and Linux, said HP's Eric Clow at the HP World conference, and its new N-class servers will be upgradable to use the Merced chip.

But HP's own PA-RISC 8500 chip and upcoming 8600 are fast enough that HP expects that customers buying N-class servers now simply will skip Merced and move on to the second-generation 64-bit chip, dubbed McKinley, Clow said.

"The decision was made to make the natural upgrade to the McKinley," Clow said. "The 8500 and 8600 performance can carry you through to that time."

Coming from Intel's closest partner for the 64-bit chip line, the words are a significant illustration of the perils of delay of the Merced chip. HP has advanced its own chip plans in light of the delay.

HP has had a central role in Intel's 64-bit chip architecture. HP invented the chip architecture as a successor to the high-speed RISC chips that power most Unix machines today, but it signed a deal with Intel to make the chips in order to carry the design into high-volume markets.

Merced has been delayed several months and currently isn't expected to arrive in computers until the latter half of 2000. HP has been helping to design the chips but has a heavier influence on McKinley.

The first Merced prototypes are almost due, said Bill Russell, chief operating officer of HP's enterprise computing group. "We expect chips back in the next two to three weeks," Russell said in a keynote address today. The release could well coincide with the Intel Developer Forum starting August 31.

Linley Gwennap, a respected Intel analyst at Cahners Microdesign Resources, has said that a delay of one year between first prototypes and first computer systems is typical for well-understood chips, and that Merced comes with the additional uncertainty of being a brand-new design. As a result of the delays, most analysts say Merced will function as a warm-up for McKinley.

Though the chip architecture hasn't arrived as swiftly as Intel hoped, the chip still features prominently in the server lines from the biggest computing companies. HP, IBM, Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, SGI, and others all plan to sell servers using the chip. Sun Microsystems will sell its Solaris operating system for IA-64, but its own servers will continue to use its UltraSparc chips.

HP and SGI both plan eventually to drop their own RISC chip designs in favor of IA-64 designs.

HP boasts of having an advantage over competitors with IA-64: Software written for its PA-RISC systems will run on IA-64 systems without having to be modified.

"PA-RISC binary compatibility is an architectural feature of IA-64," Clow said. "You won't find it with Sparc, Alpha, MIPS, or PowerPC" chips, he said.

In addition, HP has produced the essential supporting chips that will let IA-64 chips talk to the rest of the system. Those supporting chips, called the chipset, are built into HP's new N-class servers.

One key part of the IA-64 architecture is having a good compiler, the special software that converts programs written by people in "high-level" languages into instructions understandable by the underlying hardware. HP has been working closely with Microsoft, which is busy getting its Windows 2000 operating system to work on IA-64. "They're very interested in our compiler expertise," Clow said.

After upgrading its midrange Unix servers with the N-class systems this year, HP now is working on similar upgrades to its high-end Unix servers, Russell said. These new servers, code-named "Superdome," should arrive next year, he said.

"We need more than Merced to follow the full spectrum of performance," said Russell. "We expect a minimum of four more PA-RISC" chip generations.

HP has funded and begun development on the the 8600, 8700, 8800, and 8900 versions of the PA-RISC chips, he said.

HP's 3000 line of computers will begin using IA-64 chips sometime after 2001, said Dave Snow, a marketing executive with the HP's commercial systems division.