Intel unveils budget Itaniums

The chip giant releases a pair of Itanium 2 processors designed for rack-mounted servers and clusters as it attempts to expand the chip family's reach.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
4 min read
Intel on Monday released a pair of Itanium 2 processors designed for rack-mounted servers and clusters as it attempts to expand the chip family's reach.

The Low Voltage Itanium 2, formerly code-named Deerfield, and a scaled-down version of the latest Itanium 2 chip are largely designed to fit inside two-processor servers where cost, space and energy consumption are paramount concerns.

All three factors are important in clusters, which can consist of a few thousand computers strung together for mainframe-class tasks, or in relatively low-cost servers dedicated to a few specific tasks, such as handling authentication for a large Web site.

"There have been two-processor (Itanium) systems out there, but this allows us to be more effective from a low-power and cost perspective," said Jason Waxman, director of multiplatform marketing at Intel.

Dell announced it will insert the new chips into its PowerEdge 3250 server for high-performance clusters, while Hewlett-Packard said it will add the Low Voltage Itanium 2 into a workstation.

Technically, the processor core--the computing brain inside the silicon--of both chips is identical to the core on the 1.5GHz Itanium 2 chip. That chip, formerly code-named Madison, was released in June. Intel, though, has varied the speed and cache size so the two new chips will better fit certain applications, Waxman said.

The Low Voltage Itanium 2 runs at 1GHz and comes with a 1.5MB cache, which is a reservoir of memory integrated into the processor for rapid data access. Because it runs slower, the Low Voltage chip consumes about half the energy of the high-end Madison processor and features a maximum energy consumption ceiling of 62 watts. Lower energy consumption translates to lower heat dissipation, which allows engineers to stick the chip into smaller servers and/or cram more servers into a single computing room.

The other new Itanium 2 runs at 1.4GHz and comes with a 1.5MB cache. Although that's close to the speed of the Madison Itanium 2 chips released in June, those earlier chips come with 3MB, 4MB and 6MB of cache. Typically, high-performance computing clusters want chips with high clock speeds, measured by gigahertz, but don't necessarily need humongous caches, Waxman said.

The new models also cost far less. In quantities of 1,000, the 1.4GHz Itanium 2 sells for $1,172 and the low-voltage chip for $744. By contrast, the 1.5 GHz chips released in June that come with 6MB of cache sell for $4,227.

Why the price difference? Making chips is like baking cookies. Although the recipe is identical, they don't always come out the same

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way. In the case of chips, not every one on a wafer will come out with a fully functional 6MB cache or perform at 1.5GHz.Those chips that don't meet the optimal requirements can be legitimately sold as 1.4GHz chips with a 1.5MB cache. These chips aren't defective (i.e., they work as described) and every chip maker engages in this practice as a way to cut costs and improve manufacturing yields.

Intel is hoping that the new chips will allow the Itanium family to spread toward the volume segments of the server market. While the current Itanium 2 chips rank with the fastest microprocessors in the world, Intel is still overcoming a history of delays, customer indifference and a lack of software for the Itanium family.

Right now, Itanium chips barely contribute to Intel's revenue. Meanwhile, Intel chips based on the x86 architecture, such as the Pentium 4 and the Xeon chip, account for more than 90 percent of computer microprocessors--in servers, notebooks, desktops and workstations--sold.

Nonetheless, interest in Itanium is growing, Waxman said. Several applications are coming to market and a number of customers are expressing interest in using Itanium servers to run databases.

More than 40 different two- and four-processor servers and 10 servers with eight or more processors based on Itanium will hit the market this year, according to Intel. Dell began to sell Itanium servers again with the release of Madison, after declining to use its most recent predecessor.

This year, rival Advanced Micro Devices has also begun to more actively challenge Intel in the server market with Opteron.

The new Intel chips, which were expected, are being unveiled a week before the Intel Developer Forum, a three-day convention about all things Intel to be held in San Jose, Calif. At the show, the company is expected to discuss Tanglewood, a version of the Itanium chip planned for 2006 or 2007 that will contain up to 16 different processing cores.