Intel Bullish on Itanium’s Growth Prospects

Intel executive Pat Gelsinger had just finished a twenty minute Q & A session with reporters at Intel’s developers conference last month, but as the reporters started to get up to leave, Gelsinger felt compelled to make one more comment. “I can’t believe we got through this without any questions about Itanium.”

The press, analysts and, more importantly, enterprise customers have been wondering about the future of Itanium for some time. Design on the 64-bit processor, co-developed with Hewlett-Packard , started in the mid-1990s and it was initially seen as a successor to Intel’s mainstay Pentium.

But development glitches and compatibility issues hounded Itanium which didn’t ship until 2001. In the past year, Itanium has received good acceptance at the high end of the market for servers and even supercomputers, analysts say. Meanwhile, Intel has plugged its Xeon chip as the high end PC/workstation competitor once thought to be Itanium’s domain.

In a recent briefing, Intel and HP officials were extremely bullish on Itanium’s prospects and claim it’s winnings customers at the expense of systems based on Sun’s Sparc and IBM’s Power processors.

“We’re in the upswing of our plans,” said Jerry Huck, Itanium co-developer, and CTO of business critical servers at HP.

Lisa Graff, general manager of Intel’s high-end server product line, puts it more bluntly: “Itanium is an incredible threat to our competitors in the high margin systems business. We think it’s a two horse race between us and IBM.”

Graff said that at the end of last year Intel had reached a goal of having Itanium-based systems deployed in 40 percent of Fortune 100 companies, including such blue chips as General Mills and Daimler-Chrysler, and that just last week the company achieved 50 percent penetration.

Both IBM and Sun introduced dual-core processors well ahead of Intel’s first offerings this year. At its developers conference last month Intel said it’s committed to moving its product line to dual and multi-core. By the end of this year Intel is slated to ship Montecito, the dual-core version of Itanium that promises to over double the performance without an increase in power requirements.

Sun plans to release an eight core processor code-named “Niagara” early next year. However, Graff criticized Sun’s approach of adding cores to boost performance. “We think it’s a poor match, a weak core won’t keep up. We run circles around any Sparc-based server.”

“The argument that you need a stronger core is good for some applications, ” said Kevin Krewell, principal analyst at In-Stat, and Editor of the Microprocessor Report. “But most of the performance gain for Itanium has been because of the extremely large cache that’s included. I suspect if you had as big a cache in a Risc processor you would get similar gains.”

Brian Cox, HP’s director of worldwide director of server marketing, said HP has won considerable business for its Itanium-based Integrity servers at Sun’s expense in the financial industry, a Sun stronghold.

But Phil Dunn, group manager of marketing in Sun’s Scalable Systems Group, claims HP and others are using big discounts made possible by market development funds provided by Intel, to gain customers for Itanium. “When you give systems away for free it’s hard to compete,” Dunn told

“We’re still number one on Wall Street by far,” said Dunn, adding that Sun has migrated a 150 HP customers to Sun systems over the past two years. “Even at a big discount, Itanium doesn’t have the investment protection story when you look at the cost and complexity of adding it to the data center,” said Dunn.

One advantage Dunn sites over HP and other Itanium systems is that Sun offers dynamic reconfiguration so that faster processors and memory can be added and recognized by the system without downtime. High availability is critical to transaction-oriented financial and other applications, where any downtime can be enormously expensive.

While IBM with Power, and Sun with Sparc look to increase performance by raising the clock speeds in their processors (requiring more energy and giving off more heat), HP’s Cox said that Itanium’s performance will be greatly improved as they get “smarter with the compilers it uses.” He said HP would continue to also raise the Itanium’s clock speed in future versions.

Sun’s Dunn said far from an advantage, the Itanium’s dependence on compilers makes it difficult for software vendors to keep up. “Most top tier ISV’s like Oracle can’t constantly recompile their applications which can induce bugs and errors in the process.”

Analyst Krewell said the real test will be when Montecito comes out and its performance is benchmarked.

“I expect overall performance and energy savings to be very good. But Intel’s been talking about developing better compilers for years. Where are they? They haven’t delivered the knock-out punch performance they promised yet.”

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