Madison puts on its floaties but can it swim?

Itanic's third act

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Intel is hoping the third installment of the Itanium saga has a happy ending.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Madison processor has arrived and just in the nick of time. Intel is looking to the third generation of its 64-bit Itanium family to turn around what has been a difficult start for the chip. Yes, it's Madison that is to finally put some pressure on Sun and IBM and help Intel take its fair share of the lucrative high end server pie.

As reported earlier, Madison - still called Itanium 2 - will come in four flavors. Users will immediately be able to get their hands on three versions of the chip: 6MB cache, 1.50GHz; 4MB cache, 1.40GHz; and 3MB cache, 1.30GHz. In thousand unit quantities, prices run $4226, $2247 and $1338. A fourth, lower-cache version will arrive later this year and so will the low-voltage Deerfield chip.

Madison beats its predecessor, McKinley, by 30-50 per cent, according to Intel. McKinley performed well across the board in benchmarks, and Madison does even better. Power4 from IBM gives it the best competition with Alpha and PA-RISC following and UltraSPARC III some ways behind.

Ah, but all-out performance is just one part of the equation.

Itanic has come a long way with software support, but Solaris/SPARC and AIX/Power beat any OS running on Intel's monster. It's nice to have HP-UX, Linux and Windows all available along with Oracle, DB2, BEA, SAP and SAS. Okay, it's a long software list, but a wise person recently reminded us that "these things take time".

Luckily, Intel has prepped some new 32-bit Xeon chips for those impatient sods not ready to rewrite all of their code and do a port over to Itanic. The Xeon MP chips - aka 'Gallatin' - will now be available at 2.8GHz with 2MB cache, 2.5GHz with 1MB cache, and 2GHz with 1MB cache. In order, the chips are priced at $3692, $1980 and $1177, in 1000-unit quantities.

Xeon pays a big chunk of the bills at Intel. It's not some market expansion experiment. It is the market.

Everyone ships Xeon-based servers these days, even Sun. The only real threat to Intel's stranglehold on 32-bit server chips comes from AMD with Opteron. AMD's weapon rivals Xeon in benchmarks and could make the market a little more interesting in a year's time.

In a nice showing, the leading Xeon vendors - HP, IBM and Dell- have all lined up to support Itanic this time round.

As is par for the course with Itanic, HP is the biggest cheerleader. Itanium is key to HP's future as PA-RISC and Alpha are phased out. The clock is ticking, friends.

HP has just about every kind of Itanic system imaginable in its stables under the new Integrity server brand. The company already ships workstations and low end servers but is taking the chip all the way through its server line up to the 64 processor Superdome system. Recent IDC numbers show HP's Itanic sales fell quarter-on-quarter, which is not a good sign for a bet the company product. Word on the street, however, is that the numbers were a tad skewed and that HP actually ended up ahead.

There is no doubt that HP's early use of Itanic helped it win out in a few deals against IBM and maybe even Dell. Still, it must have been lonely out there all as IBM and Dell thumbed their nose at McKinley.

This time round, everyone can relax. IBM has four processor systems prepped and larger ones on the way. Dell is also ready to go with a two processor box.

SGI, Unisys, NEC and Fujitsu are geared up too.

Intel has worked hard to keep pushing Itanic in a down economy. The chip does not have the best "amount of work to benefit" ratio. Why not just keep humming away on your Unix/RISC kit?

All that aside, Intel has assembled an impressive customer list that spans the Americas, Europe and Asia Pacific. Most of the Itanic backers still reside in the high performance computing market, but a fair number of enterprise clientele have been thrown in.

To make Madison a success, Intel will need to keep up any momentum it has with ISVs and start to show some serious gains in market share. This is the third go, and it's time to prove this thing has some life. It's time to unplug the respirator and make the damn thing run.

Intel will keep driving home Itanic's admirable benchmark performance, but rivals such as IBM and Sun have leads with other technology such as multicore chips and a ready list of multithreaded software. Multicore chips throw a real wrench into per processor licensing schemes and could catch Intel off-guard.

Intel won't have a proper multicore chip until 2006 with Tanglewood.

However, what Sun and IBM can never match is the momentum that comes with Intel. Once Chipzilla puts its weight behind something, some kind of gear in the center of the earth springs into action. Even as Itanic sinks, the vision of a deus ex machina is all too clear. ®

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