Tech Industry

Intel shifts 64-bit emphasis

The chip giant plans to demonstrate a 64-bit revamp of its Xeon and Pentium processors--an endorsement of a major rival's strategy and a troubling development for Intel's Itanium chip.

Intel plans to demonstrate a 64-bit revamp of its Xeon and Pentium processors in mid-February--an endorsement of a major rival's strategy and a troubling development for Intel's Itanium chip.

The demo, which follows the AMD64 approach of Intel foe Advanced Micro Devices, is expected at the Intel developer conference, Feb. 17 through 19 in San Francisco, according to sources familiar with the plan. Intel had code-named the technology Yamhill but now calls it CT, sources said.


What's new:
Intel plans to demonstrate a 64-bit revamp of its Xeon and Pentium processors in mid-February.

Bottom line:
Pushing 64-bit capability could help those chips approach the performance of Itanium. But that could leave the future of Itanium, which companies such as HP and Silicon Graphics are counting on, in limbo.

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Adding 64-bit features would let "x86" chips such as Intel's Xeon and Pentium overcome today's 4GB memory limit but would undermine the hope that Intel's current 64-bit chip, Itanium, will ever ship in large quantities. A CT demonstration would send the message that prospective Itanium customers should put Itanium purchases on hold, said Peter Glaskowsky, editor in chief of In-Stat/MDR's Microprocessor Report.

"If they put all the effort into Xeon they put into Itanium, it could be a very impressive thing. They could get very close to the performance levels of Itanium," Glaskowsky said. But there would be a cost: "In the long run, if they were really serious about would kill Itanium."

That would hurt Intel, which has staked much of its reputation on Itanium, but it would affect partners such as Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Graphics moreso; both rely on Itanium for their future server designs.

Bill Kircos, an Intel spokesman, declined to comment on the CT name or plan other than to say, "We will include extensions in our chips, if our customers are requesting it and if the infrastructure is available, including a production operating, software and applications."

Kircos also maintained that Itanium "has turned a corner" and is achieving mainstream acceptance in the high-end server market. "The (chief information officers) who buy Itanium are more conservative than Pat Buchanan"--unwilling to make dramatic computing changes overnight. "This is a marathon; not a sprint."

The CT name follows a pattern Intel uses to name features the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker is building into its chips: The already released HT, or hyperthreading, technology lets a single chip act in some ways like two; the VT, or "Vanderpool," technology runs multiple operating systems on one chip; and the LT, "LaGrande," security technology.

AMD's Opteron is catching on. In the third quarter--only the second since Opteron's April debut--about 10,746 Opteron servers were sold--more than twice the 4,957 Itanium systems, according to market researcher IDC. However, Opteron and Itanium shipments are both far short of selling the 1.18 million servers shipped with Intel's Xeon or Pentium or AMD's Athlon.

Major names have joined several second-tier companies to sell Opteron servers, including IBM, Sun Microsystems and, according to sources, soon Hewlett-Packard, too.

Itanium was once expected to spread as widely as Pentium, but Itanium forecasts have been declining in recent years. In 2000, IDC projected Itanium server sales of $28 billion by 2004. Two weeks ago, IDC lowered its 2007 forecast to $7.5 billion.

The high stakes for Intel have meant close scrutiny of the words of Intel executives. Two weeks ago, Mike Fister, the head of Intel's server group, predicted that lower Itanium prices "could kind of obfuscate" Xeon. But on Wednesday, Intel Chief Operating Officer Paul Otellini boosted the x86-64 direction, saying in a Webcast interview with Schwab Soundview Capital Markets on Wednesday, "You can be fairly confident that when there is software from an application and operating system standpoint, we'll be there."

Itanium has been able to run x86 software only very slowly, but Intel says performance is improving, with a software emulation technology called IA-32 Execution Layer. In contrast, AMD's x86-64 approach, now called AMD64, runs the vast quantity of existing software for Pentium and Xeon.

An Intel CT demonstration doesn't mean that the technology is ready for mainstream use, however.

Analysts believe that as with hyperthreading, Vanderpool and LaGrande, Intel put the technology into chips but is waiting to enable it, until necessary software support catches up. Both Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight64, and Glaskowsky believe that CT was built into an upcoming Pentium 4 version called Prescott, due Feb. 2.

That means that CT would also be in Prescott's Xeon derivatives--"Nocona" for dual-processor systems and "Potomac" for those with four or more processors.

However, Brookwood believes that Intel will wait for the appearance of Prescott's successor, called Tejas, which is due in early 2005. The reason for the wait, Brookwood believes, is that the Prescott designs were complete before Intel had access to AMD's approach, meaning that software tuned for one wouldn't work on the other.

"They need that compatibility now," Brookwood said. "I believe that Tejas is coming so hard on Prescott's heels, (because) Tejas has the compatibility that is not in Prescott and Prescott derivatives."

IBM, for one, believes that x86 has a strong future, with plans for a 64-processor server.

Because of the Itanium commitment, Intel is currently reluctant to talk about how great CT could make Xeon, Glaskowsky said. "They cannot afford to say that, because they're not sure yet that they want to do this," he said.