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SGI, HP revive own chips on Merced delay

Intel's 64-bit high-end processors most likely won't be immediately adopted by server vendors that are extending their own high-end chips.

Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips, already beset by delays, most likely won't find an immediate home in server vendors' product lineups.

Intel's 64-bit chip technology, which will initially be embodied in the Merced and McKinley processors, may eventually come to dominate the high-end server market but two of Intel's staunchest supporters are reviving their own chip architectures due to delays in the Intel chip.

Silicon Graphics and Hewlett-Packard have extended the roadmaps for their own high-end Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) chips, which means that computers based around these chips will continue to be sold well into the next decade.

These changes in turn likely mean a slower adoption curve for Intel's 64-bit products, already plagued by delays.

Merced, the first IA-64-chip, has been delayed until mid-2000 and won't provide huge performance benefits. McKinley, Merced's successor, won't come out until late 2001. Chips code-named Madison and Deerfield will follow.

Silicon Graphics now has plans to release new processors every six to nine months through 2002, more often than earlier expected, to placate customers, while HP has moved up the release date on its PA-RISC 8600.

"I expect that we will be seeing MIPS machines into the middle of the next decade and we will support them well beyond that," said John Mashey, chief scientist at SGI. "It is hard to see how IA-64 could be beaten in the market...[but] the customer feedback has been that they would like to be able to buy a few more rounds of MIPS-based machines while they get their first Merced machines going."

The Merced slowdown in many ways can be seen as the result of a collision between expectations and reality. When Intel first started drumming up support for its 64-bit plans a few years back, the general consensus was that the company's products would dominate the market. Intel has a greater manufacturing infrastructure than nearly all other processor vendors, which means the company can produce a greater number of chips at a lower price. The cost-savings to be had by adopting Intel's chips presaged a stampede.

Intel in fact quickly began to gain support from Unix operating system vendors and server vendors, including those like that had their own RISC chips. HP, in fact, was Intel's co-developer on the instruction set for the IA-64 bit architecture.

Reality hit during the middle of last year when Intel announced it would be delaying Merced from the end of 1999 to the middle of 2000. While a six-month delay typically isn't terminal for a product, it put Merced in an awkward position. By that time, Intel would be producing chips based on its current IA-32 bit architecture at around 800-MHz, about the same speed as Merced. Meanwhile, at that point in time, McKinley would be only a little more than a year off. McKinley will have twice the performance of Merced, according to Intel.

Whether caused by the delays or not, customers now are apparently looking for a smoother transition before switching to the Intel architecture.

"The transition is going to take the majority of the next decade, or at least the first eight years," said Kelly Spang, processor analyst at Technology Business Research.

As part of this effort, SGI is releasing new MIPS chips every six to nine months, said Mashey. SGI is currently building servers around its R12000 chip and will come out with a faster version of the chip toward the end of the year, according to Mashey. In the middle of 2000, SGI will release the R14000, which will run at 410 MHz and go up to 450 MHz.

The R16000, which will run at 600 MHz, will follow in 2001. It will be followed by an 800-MHz chip in 2002, which could be sold as either a faster version of the R16000 or as the R18000. Earlier, SGI's chip roadmap went through the R12000 only.

SGI's processor will balance the company's plans to adopt Intel chips and the need to make an easy transition, said Mashey. All of these chips will essentially use the same processor core. Speeds will increase and circuitry will be changed, but the basic personality of the processor core will stay the same between the R12000 to the prospective R18000.

By keeping it the same, SGI can provide customers with improved chips but avoid extravagant R&D costs, he said.

"It's very similar to what HP is doing," he said. "The laws of customer physics don't change."

For its part, HP moved up the release date of its PA-8600 processor from mid-2000 to the first quarter of 2000, the company announced this week.

Last year, HP said that the PA-RISC architecture would continue on into the year 2003 with an 8900 chip running at a speed of 1.2 GHz (1200 MHz).

"These are mainly for transition plans. Eventually our entire product line will be based on IA-64," said Jim Carlson, director of marketing for IA-64 systems at HP.