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Second-class Intel to trail AMD for years

Parity prayers aimed at 2009

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Analysis Two weeks ago, Intel looked poised to mount a serious challenge to AMD's server processor performance lead. Then the shockers arrived. Dual-core Itanium chip production slowed because of quality concerns. A sophisticated future Xeon processor was cancelled. Plans to unite the Itanium and Xeon lines around a common architecture to make servers more affordable and faster have been pushed out likely until 2009. In short, bad news for Intel customers.

Underneath all of these roadmap adjustments lurk some painful technology slips that must have customers concerned. In particular, it now appears that Intel will stay married to its front side bus dependency for much longer than previously expected and will fail to deliver integrated memory controllers on time. Where Intel had a very real shot at closing the gap with AMD in just 18 months on previous roadmaps, it now looks more likely to trail for close to four years. This should worry folks at Dell, HP and SGI, as they're most vulnerable to Intel's shortcomings.

We covered all of Intel's roadmap changes here, but will zero in on the "Tukwila" Itanium processor delay and "Whitefield" Xeon cancellation in this story.

Tukwila and Whitefield were both meant to arrive in 2007 and not only have integrated memory controllers but also share a high-speed serial interconnect called CSI. Both pieces would help Intel compete against AMD's direct connect and hypertransport technologies.

Intel, however, struggled to insert these goodies into Whitefield and will be forced to push out a replacement processor called Tigerton without the technology in 2007. Tukwila will have the goodies but will ship in 2008 instead of 2007 as hoped. And the common technology won't help Tukwila too much since Intel doesn't have a Xeon chip ready to share it. Such a Xeon isn't supposed to arrive until 2009, according to industry chatter.

So, Intel has two problems. On one hand, its chips will continue to suffer from performance issues as a result of the front side bus dependency and lack of integrated memory controllers. (Intel has some kind of workaround for this in Tigerton, but not a real competitor to AMD.) In addition, Itanium customers - the chosen few - won't benefit from the cost savings that a shared Itanic/Xeon server infrastructure promised to deliver.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at InSight 64, summed up the issues well in a research note issued this week.

"If Intel is ever to reclaim the performance lead from AMD, it must make the transition to an on-chip memory controller," he wrote.

"Intel slated Whitefield (a Xeon) and Tukwila (an Itanium) as its first processors to incorporate on-chip memory controllers. Tukwila will still use this approach, but Tigerton, Whitefield's replacement, will rely on a memory controller built into the chipset that supports the CPU, Intel's traditional approach, rather than a controller built into the CPU itself. Given the two year cycles that drive Intel's server roadmaps, this means that Intel will not be able to field a server processor with an on-board memory controller until 2009 at the earliest. Between now and then, we see little likelihood that Intel will be able to claim performance leadership."

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