Chip Battles Begin Again
Just when Intel Corp. seemed to have reached a peaceful state with its OEMs by agreeing to a truce over the next standard for I/O, the chip giant and some of its hardware partners are tussling once again. This time the battle is being fought over Intel’s newest chipset architecture.
The skirmish broke out at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif., earlier this month when Intel announced details of its next generation chip previously known as Merced, and now named Itanium.
According to Run Curry, director of marketing for the IA-64 processor division at Intel, Itanium will perform six instructions per clock cycle, will feature a 10-stage pipeline for executing instructions and will be capable of 6 billion floating-point operations per second. Additionally, the new chipset is capable of providing up to 4 MB of level 3 cache memory.
"Itanium is designed to deliver more parallel work than previous processors," Curry says.
With these and other improvements to the chipset, Intel is, in effect, moving beyond the x86 instruction set as it enters into the realm of 64-bit processing with Itanium. Intel says the new instruction set, dubbed EPIC, is more efficient than x86 and performs markedly faster.
But OEMs such as IBM Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc. and Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD, www.amd.com), used the forum to announce plans to stick with the architectures they already have in place.
Citing customer demand for stability, an IBM official said in a speech at the forum that his company sees no need to move to a new architecture.
According to reports, Compaq intends to use its own symmetrical multithreading technique, which provides a more efficient way to feed data and instructions to the CPU, reducing idle CPU time.
This doesn’t mean, however, that these companies will ignore the Itanium chip.
"There have been discrepancies between Intel and the OEMs about what goes around the chip," says Rob Enderle, analyst at Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com). "Compaq thinks it can build a better box by using the chip and going with some parts of the motherboard from companies other than Intel."
To reap Itanium’s rewards, developers will need to rewrite code to fit Intel’s 64-bit architecture.
"By default, applications written to Itanium, probably won’t run on the older Pentium chips," Enderle says.
Likewise, applications written to the AMD chip or to Compaq’s architecture may not be ideal for running on Intel’s own architecture.
Enderle says the split between Intel and these companies won’t create the dramatic software incompatibility problems some reports are claiming it will. AMD, for instance, plays at the low end of the market and Itanium is targeted toward the high end.
For its part, AMD plans to continue using the x86 instruction set. According to Fred Weber, the company’s vice president of engineering, AMD plans to extend the x86 instruction set to include a 64-bit mode, thereby maintaining compatibility with the existing installed base of x86 32-bit software applications and operating systems.
Tom Copeland, vice president of workstations and high-performance systems at International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com), says AMD’s newest x86 architecture will be a viable competitor to the IA-64 architecture.
"AMD's approach will provide an easy way for users to continue to use their existing 32-bit applications and to adopt 64-bit applications as needed," he says.