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Intel’s 64-bit Flip-Flop

Intel Corp.’s announcement last week that it would incorporate 64-bit extensions into the forthcoming “Nacona” version of its 32-bit Xeon microprocessors was an abrupt, but not unexpected, about-face for the chip giant.

During his address, CEO Craig Barrett described the new 64-bit extensions as one of Intel’s “worst kept secrets.” Industry analysts have been speculating about the existence of the new technology for months.

Even though some skeptics have suggested that Intel’s move marks the beginning of the end for its flagship Itanium chip, many industry watchers have accepted the chipmaker’s argument that the new 64-bit Xeon chips will complement—rather than compete against—its 64-bit Itanium offering.

“Sun will tell you that this is the death knell for Itanium, but I don’t see that,” observes Nathan Brookwood, a long-time Intel-watcher and a principal with microprocessor research firm Insight64. “The reality is that both of these [chips] target very different market segments.”

Brookwood says that most Xeons ship in two- to four-way systems, while Itanium system configurations are generally much larger, containing from 16 to 128 processors. “Xeons just don’t have the same high degree of high data integrity features that went into Itanium from day one,” he explains. “When you’re building a two-way and a four-way system, data integrity is fairly important, but it’s more straightforward, there are fewer potential issues—whereas if you’re building a 128-way system, there’s a lot more that you’ve got to account for.”

The upshot, analysts say, is that Intel made the move to stave off competition from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), whose 64-bit Opteron chip competes with the chipmaker’s Xeon microprocessors in the low-end server space as well as in high-performance computing environments. Opteron boasts the ability to run 32-bit and 64-bit x86 code with about equal facility and is much cheaper than Xeon to boot. AMD’s top-of-the-line Opteron 848 chip sells for about half the price of Intel’s fastest 2.8 GHz Xeon, for example, while AMD’s slowest Opteron 840 chip can be had for around $700. Intel, for its part, asks nearly $1,200 for its aging 1.5 GHz Xeon chip.

What it all adds up to, says Gordon Haff, a senior analyst with consultancy Illuminata, is something pretty new for Intel in the small-to-medium enterprise: A potential fight for market share.

“Opteron was going to take a lot of the roles outside of Itanium’s sweet spot—[the high-end] anyway—so it’s not clear that this really ends up taking a lot of business away from Itanium,” Haff says, speculating that most customers will tap Nocoma’s 64-bit extensions to support memory address spaces larger than 4 GB, and not necessarily for dedicated 64-bit processing tasks. “The reality is that with a competitive marketplace, this really helps Xeon better compete against competitive offerings, like Opteron, which are chipping away at it in terms of both price and performance.”

Intel’s vendor partners have endorsed the move. Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, touted support for Intel-based solutions across its product line, both Xeon microprocessors with 64-bit extensions as well as Itanium 2 chips. Nevertheless, HP positioned the new 64-bit extensions as ideal for workstation solutions in mechanical CAD, finance, and digital content creation markets.

HP, which helped Intel develop Itanium, and which plans to discontinue support for its own PA-RISC microprocessor architecture and transition customers over to Itanium, has the most to lose in this respect should the new 64-bit extensions ultimately snatch significant share away from Itanium. Insight64’s Brookwood doesn’t think that HP—nor any of the other OEMs that have banked on large Itanium systems, for that matter—have anything to worry about, however, mainly because the greater-than-64-way commodity space should continue to be the exclusive provenance of Itanium.

“For scaling beyond eight-way, Itanium is vastly superior to Xeon and AMD’s Opteron chip,” he comments. “Because of Intel’s … traditional approach to the partitioning of the system hardware functions, you’re more concerned about how multiprocessors are accommodated through the chipset, and that gives people like HP who want to build SuperDomes (where cost is not an issue) the ability to build very elaborate core logic that is very sophisticated.”

In addition to HP, which will soon introduce 128-way Itanium 2-based SuperDome servers, Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens, NEC, and Silicon Graphics Inc. have all announced 64-way or larger Itanium 2-based systems.

IBM Corp. also markets an Itanium 2 system, the 16-way xSeries x455, which it introduced last November. Some skeptics have suggested that Big Blue has been less than enthusiastic about Itanium—it shipped its first Itanium 2-based system, the four-way x450, last May, and ships a larger 32-way Xeon-based system, the x445—but IBM officials dispute this charge (see http://info.101com.com/default.asp?id=3874).

Last week, Doug Oathout, director of high performance xSeries systems with IBM, hailed Intel’s announcement and agreed that Xeon with 64-bit extensions can complement, rather than compete against, Itanium.

Moreover, he stresses, Intel’s flagship 64-bit microprocessor will be an important player going forward. “Clearly, there are two different marketplaces, and not all applications can take advantage of Itanium’s wide architecture,” Oathout says. “But Itanium is better for certain applications, like large database applications, in the same way that the Power Processor is good for certain kinds of workloads. It’s all about customer choice.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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