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New technologies set stage for Intel server growth

The convergence of several new technologies marks the dawn of a time when Intel servers will be seen as more than just overgrown desktop computers.

The convergence of several new technologies is setting the stage for a time when Intel servers will be seen as more than just overgrown desktop computers.

Intel will release two major server-specific chips in the coming months--the 64-bit Itanium processor this year and the 32-bit Foster early next year--as well as several motherboards, chipsets and nearly complete servers that some companies will use as foundations for their own products.

But these servers will benefit from more than chip upgrades. Invisible, yet critical, supporting technology such as the InfiniBand data transfer standard and server-specific chipsets from ServerWorks will also be part of these new systems.

Major computer manufacturers such as IBM, Compaq Computer, Hewlett-Packard and Unisys also are taking the initiative to design high-end systems that will cram 16 or more processors into a server.

The goal is to develop computers that will enable these companies to capture some of the status and profits currently reserved for makers of proprietary Unix servers. The Internet-driven server sales boom has proven extremely lucrative for Unix server leader Sun Microsystems.

To date, Intel largely has been largely locked out of this market, as has Microsoft, which earlier today released a "preview" copy of a 64-bit version of Windows for Itanium.

IBM, HP, Compaq and others that will promote InfiniBand and Itanium in servers are already competing in the upper reaches of the Unix market. But by cooperating on technological standards, these companies can undercut the leader because they are effectively pooling research.

To a certain degree, the market, as far as design is concerned, will be two-pronged. Servers containing eight or more processors will largely depend on technology provided by computer manufacturers. Many of the servers containing four or fewer processors, however, will be based around designs, and often subsystems, from Intel.

"We're growing away from being the chipheads we were," said Mike Fister, vice president of the enterprise server group at Intel. "We build and sell (servers) at multiple levels of integration. To some we sell 'white box' systems," the generic computers that lack only a brand label.

Added Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood: "Nobody is expecting the volumes on the initial Itanium machines to be enormous." But "everybody wants to have a box. The path of least resistance is to go with Intel."

Compaq, though, is bucking the trend with its four-processor Itanium machine, which features its own motherboard and chipset, said Paul Santeler, vice president of enterprise Intel servers for Compaq. "IA-64 is going to be something that's around for a long time. You either pay development costs now or later," he said.

Reaching this point, though, hasn't been easy.

A rocky past
For one, Intel and those who would use its chips have wrestled for control over the server designs. And Intel product delays left the chip giant languishing when Sun's dominance injected new energy into Unix server lines.

Even the standard-bearer of the new era, the IA-64 chip family from Intel, will face a lukewarm debut tempered by the modest pace of adoption. And Compaq's Santeler predicts that the support for IA-64 won't reach full steam until the second-generation McKinley chip arrives. Advantages will grow with time, however.

The Itanium chip and, more important, McKinley and other successors in the IA-64 family will give Intel servers the ability to use massive databases available today only on Unix servers, mainframes and other proprietary designs.

Compaq's first Itanium system will hold as much as 64 gigabytes of memory--far more than the 4GB practical with current Intel chips, Santeler said.

In addition, the chip family has features that will allow it to be used in multiprocessor systems with numerous CPUs and that make the computer less likely to crash, said Ron Curry, director of IA-64 marketing.

Chipsets in play
Chipsets, which join the CPU, memory and other central components, are finally receiving the attention once reserved for CPUs.

A company called ServerWorks is building chipsets specifically designed for servers. ServerWorks has licensed high-end server technology from IBM in a five-year agreement. The deal will make possible mainstream systems that are more reliable and that aren't afflicted with today's comparatively slow internal data transfer speeds of today's Intel servers, said ServerWorks chief executive Raju Vegesna.

ServerWorks has a technology agreement that ensures its products will be able to communicate with Intel chips through 2008. Its server specialization allowed it to win a presence in every one of the biggest server makers' products.

ServerWorks' chipsets will be for mainstream computers, but several higher-end chipsets also are on the way.

IBM is working on a Summit chipset that will allow for 16-processor IA-64 machines, said Tom Bradicich, director of the architecture of IBM's Intel servers.

HP also has its own chipset that will enable 16-CPU IA-64 servers, said Duane Zitzner, president of HP's computer division. Unisys already has a server, its ES7000, that will support 32 IA-64 chips, and Compaq is selling it under its own name.

NEC and Hitachi also have designs in the pipeline that will support systems with 16 or more IA-64 CPUs, Intel's Walker added.

Compaq is building a chipset called the F8 that will enable 8-CPU Foster servers. "We're really excited about Foster," Santeler said. The chip comes with 10 parallel memory controllers to ensure that the CPUs can communicate with memory fast enough, he said.

InfiniBand will arrive in 2001 as a way to speed connections to networks and storage systems and as a way to join computers in high-performance cooperatives.

IBM has announced it's making InfiniBand chips. Though the technology will arrive in time for the McKinley chip in the second half of 2001, "there are people targeting earlier processors," said Jim Bowers, architecture marketing manager at IBM.

InfiniBand's obvious use is to plug devices such as network cards and hard disk controllers into a computer. But the more powerful use in all likelihood will be joining processors into clusters that can work cooperatively or take over from each other when one fails, analysts say.

Bowers said InfiniBand will be used across a vast spectrum of Intel servers, costing anywhere from $2,000 to $250,000, though it first will show up in midrange systems.