At a press event here this week, HP's Itanium program manager, Marc Botherel, said a decrease in chip prices together with advances in other hardware will have a massive effect on pricing. McKinley is due to ship toward the end of the first half of 2002, although demonstration units are already being installed inside corporations.
Chief among the hardware developments will be HP's "Pluto" chipset, which will support the company's own 64-bit PA-RISC processors as well as McKinley.
"Pluto will be cheap to produce," said Bothorel. "The processors will be cheaper too, but the big savings will come from sharing designs between commercial servers and technical workstations."
Workstations and servers tend to use different chipsets and so need different motherboards, a situation that can raise prices. Pluto, though, will have an AGP graphics bus, a direct connection between the graphics chip and the main processor, said Bothorel. This means that it can be used in workstations, which come with complex graphics chips, as well as in servers, which don't really need much in the way of graphics.
"Pluto will be the first 64-bit chipset to support AGP," Bothorel said.
Ambidexterity in chipsets is a growing trend. IBM's Summit chipset works with the 64-bit McKinley and with standard Xeon processors, which can only handle data in 32-bit chunks.
Such internal architectural changes are likely to help Itanium find a wider audience. The first Itanium processor, based on the Merced core, received a lukewarm welcome from customers. Only 2,600 Itanium servers shipped in the second and third quarter, according to Gartner, while IDC puts the figure at closer to 500. Most of the companies that have bought Itanium systems have been using them in pilot projects.
Thomas Ullrich, marketing manager for Unix systems at HP, said McKinley will fare better because it will have a full software stack. "People will start to push it out in production environments," said Ullrich. "It will take a year to really build up credibility. In 2003 we will start to see broad market adoption."
Costs will also drop as system sizes decrease. Manufacturers will be able to produce McKinley servers that are significantly smaller than servers based on the earlier version of Itanium, the "Merced." HP rack-mounted servers based on Itanium are 7U high, but when McKinley servers go into production, HP will be selling them in 2U packages. One U equals 1.75 inches.
Some of the speed increases meanwhile will come from the McKinley processor itself. This processor will have a 128-bit memory bus instead of the 64-bit bus of the Merced Itanium. The cache will also move onto the die for McKinley.
Matt Loney reported from Dublin.