The chip design announcement is a milepost in the Merced schedule, which has been hampered by delays. Intel has said that it expects to begin manufacturing Merced chips in high volumes by mid-2000.
Merced is the first in a new line of high-performance microprocessors that Intel hopes will carry it from making chips for mainstream PCs and servers to the lucrative world of providing silicon to manufacturers of huge, heavy-duty servers and minicomputers. Merced and its successors will compete more directly with chips such as the UltraSparc from Sun Microsystems and the Alpha from Compaq Computer.
The crucial design development that Intel announced today is known in the industry as a "tape-out," meaning that a chip's design has been completed and sent to the factory. Next in the development stage is "first silicon," also known as first prototypes. Samples are then sent to customers so they can begin developing products around the new chips.
"It [Merced] has taped out and remains on schedule to sample later this quarter," said Paul Otellini, general manager of Intel architecture business group, in a conference call today. Computer manufacturers will get samples this quarter, he said.
So far Merced has won the support of the biggest computer manufacturers. However, it suffered a six-month delay last year, and analysts have said the chip has again recently slipped past internal Intel schedules.
Last week, Linley Gwennap of Microdesign Resources had said first silicon of the Merced chip was scheduled for early June but now is expected in August. There typically is a one- to two-month gap between tape-out and first silicon.
Gwennap has said that because Merced is such a new architecture, a one-year delay between first silicon and first systems is optimistic. With that assessment, the first computer systems likely would arrive in the last three months of 2000.
Although major computer manufacturers have folded Merced into their product lines, financial and technology analysts have said Merced systems will largely be used to test out the new architecture.
Many expect Intel's 64-bit chips to take off not with Merced, but with McKinley, its successor due in late 2000. Merced will likely come out at 800 MHz, sources have said. McKinley, however, will start at 1GHz (1,000 MHz) and offer twice the overall performance, Intel executives have said.
The IA-64 architecture came from a joint development effort between Intel and Hewlett-Packard. The name refers to the fact that 64-bits of data can be processed during one clock cycle. Current Intel chips are based around a 32-bit architecture. UltraSparc and Alpha utilize a 64-bit architecture.
The software picture also seems to favor McKinley over Merced. The chip is aimed at customers buying high-powered servers, which happen to be the most conservative customers around. Although software written for current Intel chips will run on Merced, it won't fulfill the chip's potential for speed unless it's revamped, and that takes time.
Sun a step ahead
One competitor to Merced is UltraSparc III, code-named Cheetah, from Sun, though Sun will continue to sell software for Intel-based servers as well.
Sun chief executive Scott McNealy said in April that Cheetah had taped out, and that samples were due in the same month. UltraSparc III-based computers are expected in the first half of 2000.
UltraSparc III will debut at a clock speed of 600 MHz and a feature size of 0.18 microns, Sun has said. It has 25 million transistors and is designed to work by itself or teamed with hundreds of brethren.