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HP toots Itanium horn

Hewlett-Packard boasts of progress in establishing the merits of its servers using Itanium 2 less than a week before AMD is scheduled to release its rival Opteron chip.

Hewlett-Packard boasted of progress in establishing the merits of its servers using Intel's Itanium 2 processor less than a week before Advanced Micro Devices is scheduled to release its rival Opteron chip.

On Wednesday, Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP announced new support from software companies, new speed test records and new customers buying Itanium systems.

The speed tests provide the first glimpse of the performance of the third member of the Itanium family, the Itanium 2 6M, code-named Madison and due to be released later this year. The results are consistent with Intel's estimate that the new chip would boost performance between 30 percent and 50 percent over the current Itanium 2 "McKinley" processor.

"Across the board you are looking at about 50 percent improvements in performance," said John Miller, product marketing manager for business-critical systems at HP.

Major software companies including Oracle and BEA Systems have Itanium software, and Microsoft's full-featured Itanium version of Windows is due to arrive April 24. On Wednesday, HP announced that more specialized applications from Rogue Wave, SeeBeyond, Computer Associates, Tibco, Iona, Parasoft, Zeus and others are available.

"Right now, there are approximately 300 applications for Itanium, and by the end of the year there will be 1,000," said Gina Cassinelli, executive director of enterprise solutions at HP. "We are working with every commercial" independent software vendor.

The company also is working with Intel to help customers migrate to the new chip, she said.

One area where Itanium chips got an early start is in clusters of smaller systems used to solve technical computing problems. HP said the California Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Computing Research bought 17 dual-processor rx2600 Itanium 2 servers for a cluster that's part of the TeraGrid supercomputing project.

HP, which was instrumental in initiating and developing the Itanium processor, has bet its high-end server lines on the chip. The company currently sells four-processor Itanium systems, but by the end of 2003, HP will have made it an option for computers as powerful as its 64-processor Superdome.

Miller said Itanium started out slow in part because of Merced, the first chip in the family, but that it's picking up steam. "There were clouds over (Itanium), and we put them there. Merced did not live up to expectations that had been hyped," he said.

The Itanium line is a dramatic departure from Intel's Pentium and Xeon processors. Programs must be rebuilt to use the new chip, so establishing a full suite of tested commercial programs is crucial to the utility and success of the processor.

AMD's Opteron, which will be uncloaked on April 22, like Itanium is a 64-bit chip. That feature means that the chips are able to easily use vast amounts of memory. By contrast, for the 32-bit Xeon chips to reach beyond 4GB of memory, the chips must use a special feature that requires support from the operating system and higher-level software.

Unlike Itanium, Opteron can run 32-bit applications written for Xeon, Pentium or Athlon processors as well as 64-bit applications that have been rebuilt to take advantage of the new chip's capabilities. However, Opteron thus far is geared only toward lower-end and midrange servers that have a handful of processors.

Speeding encryption
One feature Intel built into Itanium is special circuitry to accelerate encryption operations that otherwise take place in much slower software. HP announced new speed test results that reflect that advantage.

The Itanium 2 6M Madison chip is similar to the first Itanium 2 McKinley model, but it runs at a faster clock rate, has more high-speed cache memory, and is built using a manufacturing process with smaller 130-nanometer features which means that the chip consumes less power and gives off less waste heat.

An HP rx5670 server with four Itanium 2 6M processors was able to handle 3,344 simultaneous encrypted Web server connections according to the SPECweb99_SSL speed test, which measures the speed at which a server can deliver encrypted Web pages.

That result bested the performance of Sun Microsystems' four-processor V480, with a score of 568, and IBM's four-processor p630, with a score of 1,988. Future Sun and IBM processors have encryption-acceleration features, though.

Another interesting comparison is with HP's rx5670 using the current Itanium 2 processors, which posted a result of 2,280 last year. Switching to the newer processor resulted in a 47 percent improvement on the test.

The rx5670 showed a similar jump in a test of SAP's accounting and business software when upgraded with the new processors. The two-tier SAP sales and distribution test, which measures how many sales orders can be placed on a computer, jumped 44 percent from 60,000 line items processed per hour with the Itanium 2 to 86,330 per hour with the Itanium 2 6M.