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Intel drags feet on Itanium quad-core (again)

No Tukwila this Tuesday. Or even this year

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Are you one of the IT shops with Itanium-based servers at the heart of your data center expecting a substantial speed boost this year from Intel with the quad-core "Tukwila" Itaniums? You'd better forget about it, because the processor won't be making an appearance until the first quarter of 2010.

As we reported earlier this week, Intel is hosting a media event on May 26 after the Memorial Day weekend and has said that it would talk about "the next evolution in high-end server architecture", and that it thinks this architecture "raises the standard in cost-effective RISC replacement solutions".

Considering that Intel always pitches Itanium as a mainframe and RISC/Unix alternative - and also taking into account that back in February Intel delayed the Tukwila chip so it could be given a new socket common to the future "Poulson" and "Kittson", and said it would have this (once again revised) Tukwila to market in mid-2009 - you would infer from Intel's terse invitation to the press that Tukwila was at least one of the topics it would discuss ahead of a product launch.

As it turns out, while Intel will no doubt be fielding questions about Tukwila next Tuesday, what it really wants to talk about is the eight-core "Nehalem EX" processors for high-end servers. The rumor is that this chip will not be available until the first quarter of 2010, either.

What all of this means is that Intel is trying to get people to think about its future high-end Itanium and Xeon chips just ahead of when Advanced Micro Devices is getting set to roll out its six-core "Istanbul" Opteron processors months early. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that no one is building a big scalable Opteron server that can compete with the Integrity-class SMP servers from Hewlett-Packard, which is where most Itanium processors end up.

So AMD can get powerful chips into the field, but has no big SMP partners; and Itanium has big SMP partners, but they will have to make do with dual-core "Montvale" Itanium 9100s. By even generous estimates, Tukwila has been completely redesigned at least once and is going to be at least three years late - that's almost as bad a reputation as the original "Merced" Itaniums had. The difference is that most people believe that Intel will be able to deliver at least twice the performance with Tukwilas as it has delivered with Montvales. Merced was a total dog in terms of performance, and basically unusable.

According to Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata who broke the Tukwila delay story, Intel has issued a statement to his fellow analysts. It doesn't say much:

During final system-level testing, we identified an opportunity to further enhance application scalability best optimized for high-end systems. This will result in a change to the Tukwila shipping schedule to Q1 2010. In addition to better meeting the needs of our current Itanium customers, we believe this change will allow Tukwila systems a greater opportunity to gain share versus proprietary RISC solutions including SPARC and IBM POWER. Tukwila is tracking to 2X performance vs its predecessor chip. This change is about delivering even further application scalability for mission critical workloads.

At press time, Intel's home office in Santa Clara was not yet awake, and Intel UK's press office did not return requests for comment.

In effect, the Itanium chip that was supposed to take over the server space and replace myriad RISC and CISC processors - particularly HP's PA-RISC and Compaq's Alpha - has become a more or less proprietary processor for HP manufactured by Intel. Many vendors that had (perhaps fearfully) embraced Itanium in the late 1990s when it looked pretty impressive on paper have dropped it over the years.

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