Intel has started the next phase of making its upcoming Itanium
processor a real product, shipping prototype computers with the chip to
hardware and software makers for product design and debugging.
Intel has made thousands of the prototype chips and plans to ship hundreds
of systems containing the prototypes by year's end to computer makers, said
Ron Curry, director of marketing for
the new chips. The Itanium, Intel's first 64-bit processor, will compete
against high-powered processors such as Sun's UltraSparc III.
Intel has found several bugs in the first versions of its Itanium chips,
which formerly were known by their code-name Merced. However, there were
fewer than expected for a brand-new architecture, Curry said. IBM, Novell,
Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems had to go to Intel labs to try out the
first scant Itanium samples.
The bigger issue Itanium faces is how much demand there will be for the new
chip. Generally, analysts believe that its number-crunching prowess will
make it good for workstations and technical computing, especially the lofty
edge of the workstation market that Intel has yet to fully penetrate.
Typically conservative business users, however, will mostly likely
initially purchase Itanium systems for testing purposes before moving
widely to the new chip. The chip has experienced some delays.
It is Intel's first 64-bit chip, meaning that it will be able to deal with
much larger databases and much larger amounts of memory than today's 32-bit
Intel chips. The 64-bit chip family, called IA-64, will also be based
around a completely new architecture.
"The picture for the launch of Itanium...continues to be murky, although
that should not be a surprise given how Intel has struggled with the
performance of new product launches in the past," wrote Merrill Lynch
analyst Joe Osha in a recent report. "It would be a good idea for investors
to throttle their expectations back--the more we talk to Intel about
Itanium, the more we are told to save our real performance expectations for
the follow-up product, currently code-named McKinley."
However, in the long term, Intel's IA-64 effort to carve out a section of
the high-end computing market ultimately will succeed, Osha said. "The
Itanium is merely a baby step in what we believe will be a successful
effort by Intel in the enterprise computing market," he said.
Intel will ship thousands of Itanium prototype computers in the
first quarter of 2000, Curry said. These computers will go to software
writers and manufacturers of devices such as network cards that plug into
"It's unprecedented in the industry to release them this early in the stage
of the program and in this quantity," Curry said.
The next stage in the schedule is to release prototype systems tuned for
high performance in the second quarter, he said. In the second quarter,
manufacturers also will begin getting production-grade Itanium chips, so
they can start their own qualification testing, he said.
Itanium computers for customers then will be available for the general
public in the second half of the year, he said.
The design philosophy for Itanium initially came from HP, which called the
design explicitly parallel instruction computing (EPIC) and approached
Intel to help in design and manufacturing so the chip wouldn't be consigned
to low-volume markets.
The HP design began in December 1988 in great secrecy, complete with a
"black budget," said Dick Lampman, leader of the effort and now director of
HP Labs, in an interview last week.
HP expected the chip to debut in the mid to late 1990s, he said. "It took
a little longer than we thought," he said. "Of course it's frustrating. But
maddening? Not really. We think it will prosper in spite of the delays."
IA-64 will "transform the industry," Lampman said, because software written
for desktop computers will run unmodified on extremely powerful ones as
well, bridging the current divide between PCs and servers.
Over the last few months, companies such as IBM, HP and Sun announced
their success in porting their operating systems to samples of Itanium
processors. Microsoft Windows and Linux were the first two types of OSes
that successfully ran on the chip. IBM was next, followed by HP, with Sun bringing up the rear.
"Sun had a little more trouble than the others," Curry said. Although the
difficulty scheduling time on the limited number of prototypes also held
The operating system landscape simplified with the decision by Compaq not
to translate its Tru64 version of Unix to Itanium and by SGI's decision to
use Linux, not its own Irix operating system. In addition, the versions of
Unix from IBM, Santa Cruz Operation and Sequent are being rolled into one
edition code-named Monterey-64.
Also, probably in February, Intel will lift the nondisclosure agreement
under which the Trillian project
members are working to create a version of Linux for the new chips. Red
Hat, the leading Linux seller, recently acquired a place in the Trillian
Project through the acquisition
of Cygnus Solutions. It's
the only Linux seller to have such a position.
Intel is working on a new Itanium chip
set--the chips that connect the CPU to the rest of the computer--called
the 460GX, Curry said. That chipset will come in two configurations, one
for two-processor Itanium workstations and one for four-processor servers,
Other companies are working on their own chipsets, he added.