The company on Wednesday released test results for its prototype Itanium 2 chips. But though the tests show promise, only time will prove whether the extra performance will be enough to lift the chip into the spot Intel has envisioned for it: the heart of high-end business servers everywhere.
Intel designed the 64-bit Itanium architecture from scratch as a way to provide a high-performance chip for large servers that churn data from large databases and Web sites and also act as the heart of large supercomputers.
The chip, introduced in May 2001, contains a new architecture that processes data in 64-bit chunks, rather than the 32 bits processed by standard Intel chips. The 64-bit addressing lets the chip handle much larger amounts of data than a typical 32-bit PC processor.
But as a result, computer makers must design entirely new computers for the chip, and software developers must spend time and effort making their existing operating systems and applications compatible.
To date, Itanium has enjoyed only limited acceptance by computer manufacturers, which shipped only around 2,600 Itanium systems in the third quarter of last year, the first full three-month period in which the chip was available, according to Dataquest.
However, Intel believes that Itanium 2, formerly known as McKinley, will change Itanium's fortunes. It offers the performance test results to help prove the point.
The Itanium 2 chip, which will ship in the middle of this year, will offer higher clock speed and other performance improvements over its predecessor. Those improvements include a new on-chip data cache for storing frequently accessed data closer to the chip for quicker access; a faster bus for transferring data between the chip and memory; and greater parallelism. Parallelism is the ability to process multiple bits of data simultaneously. It's a technique used to improve performance of a chip by allowing it to do more work per clock cycle.
Intel said that tests of prototype 1GHz Itanium 2 chips show that the improvements help the new chip deliver twice the performance of an 800MHz Itanium on tests such as Standard Performance Evaluation Corp.'s SPECint2000 and SPECfp2000, Intel said. The SPEC tests measure a computer's processor, memory and software performance.
Additional tests, Intel said, show that the Itanium 2 can process transactions more quickly, conduct database searches in less time and tackle complex mathematical equations, solving them sooner than chips from competitors. Intel claims a performance advantage over Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC III, for example.
Intel said that a four-processor 1GHz Itanium 2 system processed online transactions 50 percent faster than a comparable Sun server with four 1.05GHz UltraSPARC III chips in tests conducted by Intel engineers. The same four-processor Itanium 2 delivered 13 gigaflops--that is, 13 billion calculations per second--6 more gigaflops than a similarly configured Sun server with 1.05GHz UltraSPARC III processors when tested on the Linpack 10K benchmark test, a test designed to estimate the performance of supercomputers.
However, Intel uses its own estimate for the performance of the 1.05GHz UltraSPARC III in both tests.
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds says as Itanium advances in its abilities, it will sweep more applications into its fold.
Though it's widely accepted that most manufacturers and corporate customers have been holding off buying Itanium servers while awaiting Itanium 2, it won't be until the end of the year or possibly next year before Intel determines if they were willing to keep their word.
Some analysts have said that the boost in performance will improve Itanium sales. Kevin Krewell, an editor at the Microprocessor Report newsletter, for instance, said last year that Intel will likely ship 100,000 or more Itanium 2 chips per quarter by the end of this year, a huge increase over early sales of Itanium chips.
Meanwhile, large manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard have also recommitted to the chip.
HP said recently that it will consolidate its high-end servers from three platforms--Intel Itanium, Compaq Alpha and its own PA-RISC chip--to one Itanium platform over time. IBM has also said it will offer Itanium 2 servers in its xSeries server line. These moves alone could give the chip a boost.
The AMD alternative
But it may take more than benchmarks to convinced all hardware makers. Dell Computer executives, for example, have been skeptical of Itanium.
Though Dell has sold Itanium systems, its CEO, Michael Dell, has also expressed interest in Advanced Micro Devices' forthcoming Opteron chip.
With Opteron, formerly known as Hammer, AMD offers a potentially cheaper and easier way to extend a server to 64 bits. The chip can handle both 32-bit applications and 64-bit applications and operating systems by extending AMD's current chip architecture to 64 bits. AMD calls this X86-64. Because it's an extension of AMD's current processor, it will also cost less than the Itanium 2 and will not require companies to create an entirely new line of hardware and software, AMD has said.
The first Opteron chip is expected next year at 2GHz or more.
Michael Dell, despite chumming around with AMD Chairman Jerry Sanders at a recent conference, has yet to say whether his company will support either Itanium 2 or Opteron.