Intel launches long-awaited Montecito Itanium

Chipmaker debuts high-performance line of processors, beginning what it hopes is a company upswing.

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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Intel launched its "Montecito" Itanium on Tuesday, doubling performance compared with its predecessor and upgrading ambitions for a high-end chip family that got off to a rocky start.

Each Montecito chip has two processor cores, which is a first for the Itanium line. Of the six Montecito models introduced, the top-end 9050 has 1.7 billion transistors and 24MB of high-speed cache memory. The models range in clock speed from 1.4GHz to 1.6GHz and in price from $696 to $3,692 (in quantities of 1,000).

Montecito models

Initial Itanium models were late, slow and burdened by software incompatibility with widely used x86 chips such as Intel's Pentium. Intel retrenched, gearing Itanium to compete with Sun Microsystems' Sparc and IBM's Power in "big iron" high-end servers. With Montecito, Intel says its troubles are a thing of the past.

"We've gone through that hard, painful maturation process of a new architecture," said Pat Gelsinger, general manger of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group. "This thing is gaining momentum."

Momentum wasn't helped last year when Intel delayed Montecito from a planned 2005 launch, slowed its top speed by 200MHz, and disabled a feature, code-named Foxton, that would have let the chip run another 200MHz faster when it was cool enough. The delay left a nearly two-year gap from the arrival of Montecito's "Madison 9M" predecessor.

Intel ships fewer than 100,000 Itanium processors a quarter, but the volume is growing, said Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron. "It seems to have its niche in the really big-iron enterprise space among a select few customers," he said.

Montecito models

Montecito-based servers generally will start appearing in September. Gelsinger was backed onstage at a press conference here by seven such refrigerator-size Montecito machines that he said weighed eight tons collectively.

The systems were from Itanium leader and chip co-developer Hewlett-Packard--the only member of the top-four server companies offering Itanium models--as well as Hitachi, Silicon Graphics Inc., NEC, Bull, Fujitsu and Unisys.

The range of systems shows Intel's progress in making Itanium a standard for high-end computers, one that is as widely used as its Xeon is in low-end machines, the company argues. "It creates for the first time an efficiency in mainframe, mission-critical computing," Gelsinger said.

HP dominates the Itanium server market, but Gelsinger predicted other Itanium companies will gain share. Of the other members of the top-four server makers, IBM and Dell canceled Itanium servers, and Sun never planned to use the chip.

Fujitsu Itanium

Intel has frequently observed that Itanium is geared for high-end servers, which account for roughly $25 billion of the $50 billion total server market. But that niche is more alluring for server makers, which reap most of that revenue, rather than chipmakers like Intel. For them, shipment volume rather than high prices is the way to recoup research and development and marketing expenses.

In an interview Tuesday, Gelsinger acknowledged that Itanium is "not yet to the level of profitability that we hope to see in it," though the chip has surpassed 2006 goals.

Technology Business Research analyst Martin Kariithi estimates that Intel's Itanium revenue is currently about $1.5 billion a year. That's a small part of the $38.8 billion in revenue the chipmaker garnered in 2005.

Montecito features
Montecito is unquestionably a more competitive product, however. On the widely scrutinized TPC-C test of server database abilities, HP's existing four-Itanium rx4640 server with 128GB of memory can perform 161,217 transactions per minute. Its cousin with four dual-core Montecito chips, though, scored 2.1 times better with 344,928 transactions per minute.

Dual processing cores represent one advantage over the chip's predecessor. So does the increase in what was an already large 9MB of cache memory. Montecito's 24MB is split into two 12MB sections, one for each core.

To make caches more reliable, Montecito introduces a technology called "Pellston" that can automatically detect faulty areas of the cache and shut them off.

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Video: Intel launches Montecito Itanium
CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland talks with Pat Gelsinger about Intel's hopes for the dual core chip.

Among other features arriving in Montecito is hyperthreading, the ability for a single processing core to run two separate threads of instructions at once. The core switches to a second thread when the first stalls because it has to wait for data from slow main memory. Although Intel debuted hyperthreading in its Xeon line in 2002, it has been removed for the time being from the current "Woodcrest" Xeons.

However, when Intel delayed Montecito in 2005, the company was forced to remove one new feature called Foxton that would have let the chip run 200MHz faster when cool enough.

Intel is "still evaluating" Foxton, said Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel's server platforms group. He declined to comment on whether it would be used in future Montecito chips or its 2007 successor, code-named Montvale.