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Intel reveals Itanium 2 glitch

An electrical problem in the high-end chip could cause computers to crash or behave erratically, says Intel. It's a black eye for the processor's chances in the server niche.

Intel disclosed an electrical problem Monday that can cause computers using its flagship Itanium 2 processor to behave erratically or crash.
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Customers can sidestep the problem by setting the processor to run at a lower speed, said company spokeswoman Barbara Grimes, and Intel will replace the processor if customers want. The glitch affects only some chips, and then only in the case of "a specific set of operations in a specific sequence with specific data," Grimes said.

"If the customer feels it's the right solution, we'll exchange processors with ones that aren't affected," she said. Intel has developed a simple software test that can determine whether a chip is affected.

The problem likely is uncommon, Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said. "These machines have been out there for a year, and it only now is showing up, so it's got to be pretty rare. If it's something that was more commonplace, we would have seen it a lot sooner, or they would have found it in their alpha or beta testing."

Still, the problem is a black eye for Intel, which has been positioning its Itanium line to take on high-end chips from Sun Microsystems and IBM for use in powerful servers with dozens of processors. Intel isn't the only one to suffer processor hiccups. Early versions of Sun's top-end UltraSparc III also had a problem that could cause crashes.

"Virtually everybody has these kinds of problems," Brookwood said. "When you consider the hundreds of millions of transistors that go into these complex designs, it's amazing we don't see these more often."

The Itanium 2 has data protection features and a 64-bit design that can handle vast amounts of memory, making it better suited to high-end servers than 32-bit processors such as Intel's Xeon and Pentium. Its performance has been good enough to boost Windows servers to the upper echelons of the server market, but the processor family's arrival has been clouded by initial delays and by the difficulties of running software written for Pentium chips.

A computer maker found the electrical problem in stress testing earlier this year, and Intel confirmed it was a problem with the chips, not the software nor other parts of system design, Grimes said. The problem affects both 900MHz and 1GHz versions of the Itanium 2, code-named McKinley. However, it doesn't affect a faster 1.5GHz successor--called Itanium 2 6M and formerly code-named Madison--that is set for release in mid-2003, she said.

The ripple effect
The problem has begun rippling through the computer industry. IBM said Monday that it has put shipments of its just-released x450 Itanium 2 server on hold until the glitch is fixed and is notifying customers that have the systems.

"Until we're sure the issues are 100 percent resolved, we're going to keep holding back shipments with the 450," IBM spokeswoman Lisa Lanspery said. "We have a policy of zero tolerance for undetected data corruption" at a customer site, she said.

The move doesn't affect IBM's overall Itanium plans, which include a server based on the Itanium 2 6M and planned for later in 2003, she said.

Hewlett-Packard, which co-developed the Itanium design and is building the processor family into its entire server line, said computer shipment plans aren't affected because it's screening affected systems before they ship. The company is working to help customers that already bought the systems.

"We'll do whatever meets the customer's total satisfaction," said HP spokeswoman Kathy Sowards. "We're working very closely with Intel to come to a resolution for any customers that may be affected."

But the glitch can't be good for server salespeople already trying to sell Itanium 2 servers with the more powerful Itanium 2 6M processors just around the corner, Brookwood said.

"Imagine if you're trying to convince a customer to buy a McKinley-based system. Customers will say, 'Maybe I'll wait until Madison becomes available,'" Brookwood said. One possible response is to offer McKinley systems with a free upgrade to Madison, he said.

Dell Computer's plans aren't affected, company spokesman Eric Anderson said. Dell plans to ship a dual-processor Itanium 2 6M system later this year.

Unisys, SGI and NEC all are shipping powerful multiprocessor servers using Itanium 2. NEC didn't respond to requests for comment, but Unisys and SGI said the glitch doesn't affect their short- or long-term Itanium plans.

"Unisys is not changing Itanium 2 plans because Intel is making appropriate accommodations and has already defined a number of alternative workarounds," Unisys said in a statement. "We have examined these changes and discussed them fully within Unisys and with Intel, and we are confident that there will be no impact on our customers."

To work around the problem, customers can turn the chip frequency down to 800MHz. "In our testing, the problem has not manifested itself when the frequency is lower," Grimes said.

Intel has begun discussing plans with computer makers on how to deal with the problem, Grimes said.

"Some may decide the problem isn't manifesting itself" and therefore no action is needed, she said. "Others may decide to turn the frequency down as a temporary solution until they can switch out the processors. Others may already have plans to do a free upgrade to Madison."

Intel has distributed to computer makers the software that can check for the problem. But the software test doesn't yield results as firm as Intel's own manufacturing test, Grimes said.

Intel deserves credit for its up-front dealings with the issue, Brookwood said. "When they discover this kind of stuff, they now understand how to deal with it from an organizational standpoint in terms of getting the word out and working with (computer makers) to get the situation corrected in a timely fashion," he said. "Nobody can accuse them of trying to sweep this under the rug."