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Next Itanium consumes less power

Intel's Montecito brings power consumption to a new low, but is it worth the sacrifices in features and clock speed?

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel's forthcoming "Montecito" member of the Itanium processor family will consume 100 watts, a significant drop from the 130 watts of current models and an advantage in an era when power consumption is a top enemy.

Intel spokesman Scott McLaughlin confirmed the figure at an Itanium Solutions Alliance meeting here. The change means Itanium will have about 2.5 times the performance per watt of the current Itanium 2 9M model.

The major reason for the lower power is the shift to a new manufacturing process employing 90-nanometer features, which means the circuitry can be made smaller compared with the 130-nanometer size used by the current Itanium, McLaughlin said. (A nanometer is a billionth of a meter; Intel's PC processors are already produced on a more advanced process with 65-nanometer features, and the chipmaker just demonstrated a prototype with 45-nanometer features.)

"A 100-watt envelope for 1.7 billion transistors--that's a heck of a deal," said Microprocessor Report Editor in Chief Kevin Krewell. "Performance per watt is becoming a more critical metric."

But part of the lower power consumption came because Intel sacrificed features and clock speed in an October delay of Montecito, Krewell said. Intel lowered Montecito's top speed to 1.6GHz from 1.8GHz and dropped a feature called Foxton that would have let the chip jump to 2GHz if it was running cool enough. "It's disappointing that something they hoped would provide a greater kicker couldn't be there and that they delayed the launch for nine months to close to a year," Krewell said.

Performance per watt has become a major focus at server companies trying to deal with increasing chip power consumption, computer equipment density and electricity prices. Sun Microsystems touts the 72-watt consumption of its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor, and Advanced Micro Devices has touted the fact that its standard Opteron chips consume 95 watts compared with a range of .

Google, a massive buyer of computing systems, has said power costs are likely to outpace server hardware costs if performance per watt doesn't change.

Intel isn't ready to say whether 100 watts will be the new maximum permitted for Itanium systems of the future. However, McLaughlin said, "In our future, performance per watt is very important and not just a nice-to-have feature."

Power improvements could give Itanium a much-needed boost. The high-end processor once was expected to sweep the server world, but because of delays, poor initial performance and software incompatibilities, Intel has had major difficulties getting Itanium to catch on. And though there is still widespread use of Intel's Xeon processor, an x86 model that unlike Itanium smoothly runs software for chips such as Pentium, it, too faces challenges.

"Nothing that we heard from Intel this week changes our belief that AMD is going to take more share in server processors this year," Merrill Lynch analyst Joe Osha said in a report this week.

But Itanium backers are forging ahead. At the Itanium alliance meeting, Intel and eight server makers declared they're spending $10 billion on Itanium research, development, marketing and support for software companies. The meeting drew several high-ranking executives, including Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini and Bob Muglia, Microsoft's senior vice president in charge of servers and tools.

Hewlett-Packard, which codeveloped Itanium along with Intel and remains the chip's major backer among server makers, believes Itanium has an advantage when it comes to power issues. "Power dissipation is a function of clock speed. Architectures like Itanium get more work done per clock cycle," said Don Jenkins, vice president of marketing for HP's Business Critical Server group. "That puts Itanium as an architecture in a very good place."

But the initial promise that Itanium would execute more instructions per cycle hasn't panned out, Krewell said. "If that was the case, Itanium would be blowing away everybody in the marketplace," he said. "Software schedulers never got as good as the architects thought they would."

Compared with today's Itanium chips, Montecito will roughly double performance in transaction processing tasks such as running databases. The chip has dual processing engines, called cores, and each core can execute two instruction sequences called threads.