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Intel admits Itanium pains, plots server future

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IDF Fall '04 Intel today filled in a large chunk of its server processor roadmap, laying out a plan that brings the company up-to-speed with rivals . . . eventually.

Intel's new server processor chief Abhi Talwalkar did his best here at the Intel Developer forum to defend the still struggling Itanium processor and to tout the successful Xeon line of chips. In so doing, Talwalkar pledged to advance Itanium in a way that will help Intel-based boxes match high-end servers from the likes of IBM and Sun Microsystems through sophisticated tools such as partitioning and management software. In addition, the exec announced new multicore Xeon processors that will help Intel compete against IBM, Sun and AMD.

On the Itanium front, Intel plans to debut a number of new technologies in the dual-core Montecito chip due out next year. This processor will ship with Intel's Pellston memory error correcting technology and its Foxton power management tools. In addition, Intel's Silvervale partitioning technology will appear first in Montecito. Silvervale will help Intel customers develop hardware-based partitioning in their servers.

All of the major Unix vendors currently ship high-end partitioning tools for running numerous applications on a single system. HP currently offers impressive partitioning technology via HP-UX on Itanium servers, but the Intel "ecosystem" as a whole is behind the RISC world on this front, as neither Windows or Linux can match the most popular versions of Unix in this area. Intel expects Silvervale to help software makers such as VMware make better code for the Windows and Linux crowd, although Unix-like tools will certainly take years to develop.

Intel plans to follow Montecito with a low voltage version of the chip called Millington. Near the 2006 timeframe, Intel will ship a follow on to Montecito code-named Montvale and follow that with a low voltage chip. In 2007, Intel is then expected to release the multicore Tukwila chip, first revealed here, and its low power counterpart Dimona.

Intel's continued faith in Itanic is nothing short of remarkable. The processor, however, has started to take a toll on Talwalkar.

"Are we meeting the goals we had for this year? Not to the aggressive levels we set," Talwalkar said during a question and answer session with reporters at IDF.

Itanium is also failing to meet the aggressive levels set by analyst firm IDC. Through the first half of 2004, Itanium shipments have come in $13.4bn shy of IDC's onetime $14bn forecast. When a reporter cited these figures to describe Itanium as a "failure," Talwalkar shrugged off the suggestion that sales have been slow. He pointed to a number of servers behind him on stage, saying that companies such as Hitachi, Unisys, Fujitsu and NEC are keeping the Itanium ecosystem alive and well by complementing Itanic leader HP.

In the second quarter, Hitachi shipped 15 Itanium servers, Unisys moved 11, Fujitsu shipped 5 and NEC moved 38, according to Gartner. HP sold 4,789 of the grand total of 5,665 boxes. We couldn't help but wonder if the Fujitsu box on stage was one of the five it sold in the quarter. Industry standard? Don't think so.

Intel's Xeon strategy appears far more rational than its Itanium plans.

One of the most intriguing parts of the Xeon roadmap was confirmed for the first time today as Intel revealed Whitefield - a product discovered by The Register in May. Talkwar did little more than admit Whitefield's existence, but sources have revealed this chip will combine numerous mobile processor cores, making it similar to the multicore processors being described most prominently by Sun. Intel did confirm that most of the work done on Whitefield occurred in India - a first for the company.

Intel also described a chip code-named Irwindale for two-processor servers and workstations. This product will be the follow on to today's 3.6GHz x86-64-bit Xeons, shipping with a faster clock rate and a 2MB cache.

For multiprocessor servers, Intel next year plans to ship Cranford and Potomac. The chips will have different cache sizes and other attributes and will be paired with the Twin Castle chipset. Later, Intel plans to release the Tulsa follow on. Intel has still yet to reveal the replacement for Jayhawk in the dual-processor server market.

Intel is facing more competition than ever before on the server front from AMD and its Opteron chip, making a smooth Xeon roadmap crucial.

It's somewhat frustrating to see Intel tout dual and multicore chips now after having dismissed the technology as child's play back when Sun was hyping it. Sun, to be sure, needed something to brag about and did so too early, but Intel now appears as a laggard to world+dog.

It has been behind on 64-bit extensions, dual cores, multicore products, things like partitioning technology and has no answer for AMD's Hypertransport. This all conjures up the feeling that Intel became far too focused on boosting GHz for single core chips when it should have been looking ahead to anticipate a changing market. Intel, luckily, has the resources and reputation needed to offset challenges from below. The tech giant, however, certainly doesn't look as savvy and on the ball as it used to. ®

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