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Itanium to arrive at last

The first servers and workstations containing Intel's new chip will start to hit the market in a few weeks at prices a bit lower than expected.

It's been a long, strange trip, but the first servers and workstations containing Intel's Itanium chip will start to hit the market in a few weeks at prices a bit lower than expected.

Intel will release the long-awaited--and oft-delayed--chip at the end of May, according to sources, and most computer companies plan to come out with their products around the same time.

IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell Computer and other large computer manufacturers will soon unveil two-, four- and even 16-processor computers containing the 64-bit Itanium chip for the first time.

The chip, and computers containing it, will compete against more expensive Reduced Instruction Set Computing (RISC) servers and workstations from Sun Microsystems, IBM and HP. Along with processors running at 800MHz and 733MHz, the Itanium boxes will tout such features as 32GB of memory--enough to store entire Web sites--and fairly large hard drives.

While it's unclear how well these computers will perform in benchmark performance tests against the established RISC aristocracy, it appears that some Itanium computers could cost slightly less than earlier anticipated.

Last year, initial price lists indicated that the chip would range in cost from $4,227 for an 800MHz Itanium with 4MB of performance-enhancing tertiary cache to over $3,500 for a 733MHz Itanium with 2MB of tertiary cache.

While the 4MB version will cost the same, the lower-end models will cost less. For workstations, Itaniums running at 733MHz and containing 2MB of cache memory will sell for between $1,000 and $2,000, or in the range of Intel's current Xeon chips. Judging by Intel's pricing history, the 800MHz Itanium with 2MB cache will likely have a similar price.

As a result, workstations will cost more than traditional Intel boxes "but somewhat less than a comparable RISC workstation," said Rick Rudd, product line manager for the Intellistation workstation line at IBM.

Still, there won't be lot

Meta Group says Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip is a major competitive threat to high-end RISC/Unix workstations and servers--but this threat will take some time to develop.

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of Itanium computers to choose from. A series of glitches have pushed back the chip from mid-1999 until now, and that's on top of a fairly long development period. Consequently, most companies are now concentrating on building computers for McKinley, a second, more powerful version of Itanium, which will start appearing in pilot projects at the end of the year.

"Every vendor's plans have changed considerably. We had much more aggressive plans 18 months ago," said Jay Bretzmann, product marketing manager for IBM's X series of servers. "It makes a lot more sense to shift development and focus to McKinley."

Software applications are also limited. "The 64-bit platform will really hit its stride next year," Rudd said.

Product selection, therefore, will be comparatively limited. Compaq, for instance, will come out with Itanium servers this year, according to sources at that company, but hold off on workstations until 2002.

HP will come out with two servers, a four-processor server and a 16-way box codeveloped with NEC, as well as at least one workstation.

"Our expectation is that this (release of Itanium-based products) will be for early adopters," said Mark Hudson, worldwide marketing manager in the business systems and technology organization at HP.

"They will be (priced) significantly higher than typical (Intel) servers but less than a RISC offering," Hudson added.

Despite the relatively limited introduction, the Itanium presence will grow as the year goes on. At the end of 2002, HP will start putting Itanium into "Superdome," its 32-processor RISC machine. Superdome pricing starts at a lofty $1 million.

Eventually, HP's Intel-based server line and the server line containing its PA-RISC chip will merge, Hudson said. At that point, HP will primarily be marketing one server family, and the main decision for the customer will be which operating system to select.

IBM will come out with a single two-processor workstation and one four-processor server. The company's Itanium Intellistation will contain two 800MHz Itaniums with 2MB of cache, up to 16GB of memory and an 18.2GB or 36.2GB hard drive. IBM's Itanium server, by contrast, will contain four processors and 32GB of memory.

The size of the memory banks and the huge performance boost they offer remain one of the key features of Itanium systems. "You can load up all of the Web pages on a site and never go to disk," Bretzmann said.

Meanwhile, Dell is expected to come out with both servers and workstations, and Gateway will release a server.

Intel declined to comment on the specifics of the launch, but executives are clearly relieved the chip is finally coming out.

"This is the quarter many of us have waited five or six years for," said Paul Otellini, general manager of the Intel Architecture Group.

Staff writer John Spooner contributed to this report.