Itanium flunking Compaq server tests

Intel's processor isn't making the grade. It's failing to pass stress tests, thus holding up the release of Compaq's Itanium servers.

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.
Michael Kanellos
2 min read
Intel's Itanium processor is failing to pass Compaq Computer's stress tests, according to a Compaq representative, thus holding up the release of Compaq's Itanium servers.

A Compaq representative said that the company has experienced "sightings" with Itanium, Intel's 64-bit processor for servers, in Compaq's internal testing of its ProLiant DL590/64. The representative would not go so far as to call the issue a flaw, but said the problem appeared to be caused by the processor. The problem crops up with servers running both the 733MHz and 800MHz version of the chip.

Sightings are a broad computer industry term for equipment that fails to perform as expected in testing, but with no immediately apparent defects.

Compaq has tested servers from other small manufacturers and found they too did not pass Compaq's rigorous tests--a normal prerequisite for commercial release.

"In our opinion, it is an Intel Itanium issue," the representative said. Compaq and Intel are working to determine the root cause of the problem.

An Intel representative confirmed the sightings but added that most such problems are not chip-related. Most sightings also do not rise to the level of a flaw. He also noted that Itanium servers from other manufacturers continue to ship.

The problem is the latest stumble for Itanium, one of the most ambitious product launches in Intel's history. The chip, co-developed by Intel and Hewlett-Packard, is designed to power servers that will compete against machines from Sun Microsystems. Itanium, however, contains an entirely new architecture and instruction set that took years to complete and debug. Few chip companies have been able to successfully switch from one chip design to another easily. Most, including Intel, typically enhance the existing core product.

Originally due in the mid- to late 90s, the chip only came out commercially in May 2001. Partly because of the delays and partly because of performance, most server manufacturers have barely marketed servers containing the first version of the chip and are concentrating on the next version, code-named McKinley, which comes out next year.

Some computer executives have become increasingly critical of the chip. Because the chip is based on an entirely new design, very little software exists today that runs on the server--a situation exacerbated by the harsh economic climate.

Customer interest for Itanium servers is "effectively zero," Joe Marengi, senior vice president and general manager, Dell Americas, said in an interview Tuesday at the Comdex Fall 2001 trade show. "The investment involved in the transition in huge.

"I don't see the speed and benefit to what the processor brings to the equation," he added.

Intel is also facing a potential competitive threat from AMD's Hammer processor for servers, coming out late next year. Hammer is effectively based on Intel's familiar X86 architecture but can also run 64-bit applications.

While no major U.S. manufacturer has ever used an AMD processor in a server, some analysts have said that the potential performance, as well as comparative familiarity of the architecture, could make Hammer interesting to them.