Intel shipping prototype Itanium computers

Intel starts 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.

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Stephen Shankland
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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 the computers.

"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 things back.

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, he said.

Other companies are working on their own chipsets, he added.