IBM gung-ho over Intel's delayed server chip

Servers using Intel's upcoming high-end Itanium chip won't go on sale for months, but already Big Blue is eagerly anticipating its successor, code-named McKinley.

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LAS VEGAS--Servers using Intel's upcoming high-end Itanium chip won't go on sale for months, but already IBM is eagerly anticipating its successor, code-named McKinley.

IBM expects to have the first McKinley prototypes early next year, said Tom Bradicich, director of architecture and technology for IBM's xSeries line of Intel servers.

Meanwhile, Intel spokeswoman Comdex 2000:
Back to the future Christine Chartier confirmed Wednesday the company has pushed back the date it expects McKinley servers to appear from the end of 2001 to the first half of 2002.

Regardless of the delay, Bradicich remains "enthused about it," he said during an interview at the Comdex computer show here. McKinley has higher performance than Itanium because of architectural changes to the "pipeline" through which data flows and the management of high-speed cache memory, he said.

In addition, software written for Itanium will be more developed by the time McKinley arrives. The chip will also run at a faster clock speed.

The McKinley chip is the second in Intel's IA-64 family, an ambitious product line of 64-bit chips developed in partnership with Hewlett-Packard. Intel hopes to use the chip as a weapon against Sun Microsystems and other companies with 64-bit CPUs.

Using 64-bit designs is of interest to server makers chiefly because it allows vast databases to be stored entirely in memory, a necessity for large corporations.

Another key milestone for McKinley will be "tapeout," the time when the first design is finalized and sent to the factory for the first prototype to be manufactured. A source familiar with Intel's plans said McKinley hasn't yet taped out but is expected to by the end of this year.

It appears likely that the Itanium name will apply to more than just the first generation of the IA-64 processor series. Intel no longer uses the IA-64 label, instead using the phrase "Itanium processor family"--indicating that the Itanium name could apply to successors the way that the Pentium lineage was extended with the Pentium Pro, II, III and 4.

Chartier declined to comment on the company's branding strategies.

Intel has had trouble with Itanium, initially expected in the 1990s and most recently delayed in July until the first half of 2001, while "pilot systems" would arrive in 2000. McKinley suffered the same fate, with the chip's expected arrival at the end of 2001 being demoted merely to the time pilot systems will debut.

The delays are a problem for Intel. The longer the delay, the better the chance that competing high-end server chips will be able to proliferate across the Internet infrastructure and that software companies will fall in line with Intel competitors.

Intel has also changed its technique for unveiling chips. Instead of announcing the new processor along with its price and a host of systems from the likes of Compaq Computer and Dell Computer, Intel will announce chip details months before systems arrive, Chartier said.

As previously reported, IBM is working on a chipset code-named Summit that will allow four-processor groups to be piled into a server with a total capacity of 16 CPUs. Summit will work with both McKinley and a 32-bit Intel server code-named Foster, the upcoming high-end server version of the Pentium 4. Foster is scheduled to debut in the second quarter of 2001, Bradicich said.

The Summit chipset will offer high-end memory features, including "mirrored memory," or two banks of identical memory running side by side in case one experiences a fault. In addition, the chipset will include error-correcting code (ECC) for minimizing memory corruption and chipkill memory that works even when a memory module has failed. Hot-swap memory on the chipset also lets administrators replace faulty modules without shutting the system off.

Summit will enable "remote input/output" (RIO), which lets CPUs be separated from communications tasks such as connections to the network or storage systems.

IBM's competitors aren't standing idly by. Today, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq both resell the Unisys-designed ES7000 server that can accommodate as many as 32 Intel 32-bit CPUs. And in the future, Compaq will sell a server that can hold as many as eight Foster CPUs. In early 2002, the company will begin selling a system that accommodates 16 or 32 64-bit CPUs, Compaq executives have said.

HP isn't working on a chipset for high-end 32-bit Intel servers but is for 64-bit machines, Webb McKinney, head of HP's corporate Intel computer line, said in an interview Tuesday.