Intel pushes back schedule for Itanium chip

Intel's Itanium schedule slips a notch, as the company says the need for another revision to the chip will mean it can't begin selling its future flagship product as soon as expected.

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Stephen Shankland
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Intel's Itanium schedule slipped a notch today, as the company said the need for another revision to the chip will mean it can't begin selling its future flagship product as soon as expected.

Intel said it won't start receiving revenue from the Itanium chip, the company's first 64-bit processor, until the fourth quarter of this year. The company earlier expected revenue to begin in the third quarter.

In addition, the only computers using the chip to ship this year will be "pilot systems," and the general availability will encroach even further on Itanium's successor, code-named McKinley and due to arrive in the second half of 2001.

Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel architecture group, said testing and other tasks to ensure that the new architecture was bulletproof prompted Intel to delay the product.

"The overall task of validating and fixing everything...pushed us to look at it one quarter further out than we thought," Otellini said. "This is a different environment for us."

Consequently, general availability for Itanium won't begin until the first half of next year. "We expect our customers to offer general availability of hardware, software (and other Itanium products) over the first half of 2001," Otellini said.

Added spokesman Bill Kircos: "The change of recognition of revenue is a result of requiring an additional processor revision prior to moving to the pilot release."

The news is a vindication for skeptics who doubted Intel's ambitious and already delayed schedule. The Itanium chip and its successors in the IA-64 family are geared to muscle into the market for servers based on elaborate, high-priced chip designs from Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Computer and SGI.

"I think there are still some delays in getting the chip really ready to go and getting the (computer manufacturers) ready to run with it," said Linley Group analyst Linley Gwennap. "This is what I expected a year ago. It was going to take longer than they thought."

Itanium, which was known for years by its code name, Merced, is expected to debut at speeds of 733 MHz and 800 MHz, Kircos said.

The schedule hasn't changed for McKinley, Kircos said.

McKinley also will debut in "pilot systems" near the end of 2001. In early 2001, early samples of the chip will be sent to manufacturers, Kircos said.

Analysts and even some computer makers have been warning that Itanium systems would largely be used to debug the new hardware design and accompanying software. However, they have generally agreed that the IA-64 family would prevail in the long term as a number of new design features provide for more muscular Intel server designs.

Hewlett-Packard, which invented the design underlying the IA-64 family but expected it to come to market much earlier, has described a modest pace of adoption for the new chip.

Manufacturers, in fact, have been economizing on their development funds for Itanium for a while. Intel, for example, will actually manufacture Itanium servers for some computer makers and will sell motherboards to all of them, the company said. This cuts down on independent design costs.

"For two- and four-ways, we've got a popular motherboard configuration," Kircos said.

Bucking the trend, Intel server stalwart Compaq is building its own four-chip Itanium server.

Intel is also not designing its own chipset for eight-processor Itanium servers, said a company spokesman. The company will make eight-way chipsets for Foster, a version of the Pentium 4 for servers coming in the first quarter of next year, and McKinley, the successor to Itanium.

The revision to the Itanium will take the form of a new "stepping," a modification to the chip design, Kircos said.

The chip currently is in its "b" series of steppings, a source familiar with the chip said. Currently there are about 15,000 Itaniums in 5,000 systems in the hands of software and hardware designers, he said.

Unlike the fanfare that's surrounded the debuts of Pentium chips, Intel doesn't plan doesn't plan a big to-do for Itanium, Kircos said. "We'll have a series of milestones. There won't be one processor launch per se," he said.