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Intel offers details on future Itanium chips

The next version, code-named McKinley, will be as much as two times faster when it comes out in test systems later this year.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--Intel is coming out with new versions of its Itanium chip--a slow seller so far--that the company says will provide far faster performance.

The next version of Itanium, code-named McKinley, will be "able to realize a 1.5x to 2x performance gain very readily" over the current generation when it comes out in test systems later this year, according to Abhi Talwalker, vice president of the server products division at Intel. The boost comes from a much faster bus, additional microstructures and a more efficient 3MB memory cache located on the processor, he said.

A year after that, a follow-on known as Madison will upstage McKinley by featuring a fairly massive 6MB cache integrated into the processor and even higher clock speeds, Talwalker said.

Itanium is Intel's 64-bit server chip. Released earlier this year, Itanium and the servers and workstations that contain it largely compete against hardware from Sun Microsystems. The Itanium differs from Intel's desktop chips because, among other things, it processes data in 64 bits at a time rather than 32. Because of a number of delays, the first version of Itanium, code-named Merced, has largely been used as a test vehicle.

"Merced was kind of a flop" commercially, said Jon Joseph, semiconductor analyst at Salomon Smith Barney.

Despite delays with Merced, its progeny are following in quick succession. Prototype servers containing McKinley will begin to appear later this year. Commercial systems will arrive in 2002, said Talwalker.

McKinley gets its power from a generous helping of circuitry. In all, it will sport 220 million transistors, or about five times more than the Pentium 4, and will come with a 400MHz bus that is 128 bits wide. Itanium, by contrast, sports a 266MHz bus that is 64 bits wide, according to Talwalker. Typically, increasing the speed and width of the bus--the main data conduit connecting the processor to main memory--leads to greater performance.

With McKinley, Intel also has increased the number of integer units, which perform basic calculations, from four to six. In addition, the chip will come with 11 instruction cores, two more than the current Itanium.

Talwalker declined to state the speed at which McKinley will run but said it will be faster than the current Itanium, which runs at 800MHz.

McKinley also comes with a more efficient Level 3 cache. Cache memory is near the processor and holds data that needs to be accessed rapidly. Current Itanium chips come with 2MB to 4MB of Level 3 cache. The tertiary cache, however, is not integrated into the processor but sits on separate chips next to the main chip.

McKinley will come with caches ranging in size from 1.5MB to 3MB, integrated into the processor. While smaller, the caches on McKinley will likely lead to higher performance. Integration essentially allows data to reach the processor more rapidly by cutting down the electron commute.

The new chip also will allow computer makers to build systems with more than 1,000 processors, Talwalker said. Current Itaniums can be melded into 512-processor systems.

In 2003, Madison will raise the cache quotient. Versions of Madison for eight- and 16-processor servers will come with 6MB caches, while versions for smaller servers and workstations will come with caches ranging from 3MB to 6MB.

A yet later successor to Itanium, known as Deerfield, which also comes out in 2003, will be aimed at the "dense server" market. Dense servers typically measure 3.5 inches in height or less. Deerfield will be built around the same basic architecture as Madison and McKinley, but it will consume far less power and produce less heat, according to Talwalker. The chip will appear mostly in two-processor servers.

Although Intel typically declines to comment on its competitors, it often makes an exception when it comes to Sun, which rocketed to financial success with the emergence of the Internet. Since then, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and the rest of the old guard of computing have worked overtime to take a chunk of Sun's business.

Besides touting the performance of the chip, Intel will also attack Sun on costs. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker has repeatedly said that servers based on Itanium will be much less expensive than their Sun counterparts, an important consideration in a recessionary market.

Itanium servers can cut hardware costs by 40 percent to 50 percent in some instances, according to Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group.

"The IT managers are absolutely compelled to take a look at the situation," he said.

Overall, the actual number of Itanium chips shipped will be small compared with the company's other processors, said Salomon's Joseph. However, the chips will allow the company to get a foot in the lucrative "high ground" of back-end computing.