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NEC customer finds Itanium 2 glitch

One of NEC's customers discovered a circuitry problem in the flagship processor that Intel announced on Monday.

An NEC customer uncovered the Itanium 2 glitch that Intel announced on Monday.

NEC brought the matter to Intel's attention, said Mike Mitsch, senior director of server solutions for NEC America. The customer, whom Mitch declined to specifically identify but said is a Japanese company, found the problem "relatively recently," while the server was still undergoing testing.

The glitch in the chip maker's flagship processor is a circuitry problem that can cause computers with either the 900MHz or 1GHz Itanium 2 processors to behave erratically or crash. Intel developed a process to screen for the problem during manufacturing and has a separate software package that computer makers can use.

In the meantime, people can sidestep the issue by setting the Itanium 2 to run at a slower 800MHz speed. The coming 1.5GHz Itanium 2 6M, expected this summer, isn't affected, Intel said.

NEC, like Hewlett-Packard, SGI and Unisys, is screening for the problem before shipping new systems. IBM, on the other hand, has halted shipments of the x450, Big Blue's first serious foray into the Itanium market. Dell Computer, which won't sell Itanium servers until it releases an Itanium 2 6M-based product in the second half of the year, said it's not affected.

Intel has done well first with Pentium and then with Xeon processors for use in lower-end servers, but the Itanium family is Intel's ambitious attempt to penetrate the upper echelons of the market currently dominated by IBM, Sun Microsystems and HP. Their servers can cost millions of dollars and are entrusted with their customers' most precious data.

Monday's glitch announcement was the latest of a series of black marks on the chip family's record, along with several delays and the poor performance of the first-generation Itanium, code-named Merced.

But beginning with Itanium 2, the processor family has met many of Intel's hopes. Several computer makers are using the processor in powerful designs--including a 128-processor behemoth planned at HP--and the Itanium 2 has shown good performance. And with new software called the IA-32 Execution Layer coming later this year, Intel hopes to ease problems that the chip has running software that's written for Pentium and Xeon.

The Itanium 2 electrical glitch announced Monday isn't as serious as it could have been, said Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron.

Certainly, a server processor that has reliability issues is of great concern, McCarron said, "since servers aren't supposed to make mistakes, but the actual number of systems affected is going to be tiny compared to the more traditional server market based on Xeon."