Waiting on Itanium

Now that the Gigahertz barrier has been breached, anxious gearheads can turn their attention to when Intel Corp.'s (www.intel.com) 64-bit Itanium processor will be released. Intel, however, remains circumspect on translating that nebulous time known as mid-2000 into a hard delivery date for the processors.

Earlier this month, Intel officials said the company will make an announcement regarding Itanium shipments to OEMs sometime this summer, with servers coming by the end of the year. Workstations for high-end applications, such as computer-aided design (CAD), may come sooner.

Dreams of running Quake on the new machines should be put on hold; unless software is written for the new architecture, it will run slower than it would on a 32-bit machine with the same clock speed. Intel is still developing another generation of 32-bit desktop chips, code-named Williamette.

Intel has not doubled bus width since 1985, when it rolled out its 32-bit 386 processor. The introduction of the Itanium processor will represent a new era of PC computing. Indeed, the biggest factor delaying the Itanium is not the design of a 64-bit processor, but ensuring compatibility with previous x86 systems.

"They’re late on this," says Rob Enderle, vice president for desktops and mobile technology at Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com). "What delayed them was the backward compatibility issue." Intel needed to retain a level of similarity with previous hardware and software so older products will work with the chip.

The 64-bit architecture requires major changes in both operating systems and machine hardware. One of the obstacles in increasing performance with the current 32-bit architecture is the relatively slow increases in front-side bus speeds: Motherboards currently max out at about 133 MHz, while chips are clocked at 1 GHz. This difference can profoundly crimp throughput and other performance characteristics.

"There’s an increasing gap between processor speed and what the I/O bus tries to do," says Mike Fister, vice president and general manager of Intel’s enterprise server group. To solve this problem, Intel all but eliminated the PCI bus and developed significantly new chipsets for controlling RAM and computer components. Intel calls this new architecture Infiniband.

A PCI bus, dubbed PCIX, has been developed for the Itanium, but it will not be used in servers. "It will be used in calculation-intensive desktops for graphics, rather than for throughput," Fister says. PCIX allows workstations for CAD and other applications to be quickly integrated and deployed.

Software and other operating systems present the other obstacle for a useful 64-bit chip. Operating systems and software must be rewritten for the new chips. The Trillian Project, named for a character from the Douglas Adams novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has already released a version of Linux for the Itanium.

Not all Itanium machines will be Linux boxes, of course. Microsoft is developing Windows 2000 for 64-bit architectures, and Enderle expects Redmond to ship its product at about the same time Intel releases the processor. He doesn’t expect Microsoft to necessarily dominate the Itanium server market.

"[Itanium] levels the playing field for operating systems," he says. Both Linux and Windows have the opportunity to take the lead on the new machines, but either operating system will extend the PC’s rise into high-end enterprise applications.

Comparing PCs to old guard mainframes, Fister says, "We’re fighting something related to usage models," suggesting that users may have prejudices against deploying Intel-based machines for applications previously reserved for mainframes. He is optimistic, however, that "over time, they’re learning how to use the systems."

Fister sees flexibility as the major advantage of Intel-based servers. PC servers can be scaled and repurposed more easily than mainframes. "People, since the PC, have figured out how to deal with complexity issues and scalability issues," he says. With the rapid changes in Internet business models, flexible machines can better accommodate changing business models and lines of business.

Fister expects high-end database applications to be one of the first uses of Itanium servers. "It’s real good at database stuff," he says. In addition, the processors handle encryption much better than older processors because of their improved mathematical prowess.