Intel's McKinley is one big chip

The processor, which will come out commercially toward the middle of this year, will cover an area of 464 square millimeters, according to Intel specifications.

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.
3 min read
McKinley, Intel's upcoming server processor, will be huge, at least in terms of surface area.

The processor, which will come out commercially toward the middle of this year, will cover an area of 464 square millimeters, according to Intel specifications. That's larger than expected and larger than most chips ever made.

As a result, the chip won't be the easiest or the cheapest product Intel has ever produced. Big chips cost more to make because fewer can be carved out of a single wafer. Yields--the number of good chips produced from a wafer--also typically decline as chip size increases because of the greater potential for defects.

"It's a pretty big die," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at the Microprocessor Report. "It is definitely a challenge to manufacture."

Another analyst said, "Jesus, that's big."

McKinley is the second member of the Itanium processor family and will be followed by Madison, Montecito and Chivano, among others.

The size of the chip comes from a number of factors. McKinley contains a substantial amount of cache--data reservoirs near the processor for rapid data access. Intel is integrating a 3MB level three cache, a 256KB level two cache and a 32KB level one cache.

The original Itanium features a 4MB level three cache, although it's located on separate chips, and a 96KB level two cache. McKinley also contains more internal subsystems than its predecessor. In all, the chip contains 221 million transistors.

All the additional circuitry will help McKinley achieve a large performance boost, said John Crawford, an Intel fellow in the enterprise platforms group. McKinley will run at 1GHz, he added. Intel on Monday will present a paper on McKinley at the International Solid State Circuits Conference in San Francisco.

"Applications will be about one and a half to two times faster than what you get on a (current) Itanium," he said.

Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds says McKinley will still be economically feasible to manufacture--even though it appears to be at the size limits of high-volume technology.

see commentary

Intel has also incorporated a substantial amount of redundant circuitry in the processor, Krewell said. Chipmakers often use redundant circuitry to boost yields. Sometimes, circuits come out scrambled on a finished chip. If the manufacturer has put in two sets of the same circuits, the chip will function properly because it can use the second set.

The size of McKinley won't likely represent a huge drain on costs for Intel. While McKinley is expected to be popular, server chip volumes are relatively low. Intel may make only a few hundred thousand McKinley chips in 2002 and sell them for several thousand dollars.

Instead, the size effectively means that the chip will cost more to produce than other Intel chips.

How big is it? Krewell said it's the second-largest chip he's heard of, second only to a Hewlett-Packard PA-RISC chip from a few years ago. Each McKinley could cost $300 to produce, compared with $50 for some members of the Pentium family. Only about 47 McKinleys will be able to be carved from a standard wafer. Intel now carves about 180 of the latest Pentium 4s from a single wafer.

McKinley's acceptance is a major issue for the hardware industry. The chip, which digests data in 64-bit chunks rather than 32-bit chunks like most Intel chips, will be placed in servers that compete against servers from Sun Microsystems and others.

Although the first Itanium sold only sparingly, Intel, IBM, HP and others harbor far higher hopes for McKinley. The chip provides better performance than its predecessor and is expected to sell in far larger numbers.

The ultimate success of McKinley, though, will depend on the availability of software. Microsoft, Oracle and a number of other software developers have committed to delivering products for McKinley. Still, it is uncertain when customers will gravitate to these new products in the current economic climate.

Intel is already preparing successors to the chip. In 2003, the company will unveil Madison, a successor to McKinley, and Deerfield, a low-power, cheaper Itanium chip. Madison will effectively be a "shrink" of McKinley.

Rather than get manufactured on the 180-nanometer process, Madison will feature circuits measuring 130 nanometers. The shift will reduce the size of the chip dramatically. In 2004, the company will come out with Montecito, the successor to Madison, and follow it in the 2005-2006 time frame with Chivano, Montecito's successor.

Both Montecito and Chivano will contain influences from Compaq's Alpha chip, according to sources.