Chip giant Intel Corp. has a very simple strategy when it comes to its Itanium 64-bit processor architecture: taking over the market for high-end servers.
To understand the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip manufacturer, you must first understand the law established by one of its co-founders, Gordon Moore, which contends that you can double the number of transistors on a microprocessor approximately every 18 months. Since Intel first adopted Moore's Law as its mantra, the company has consistently crushed the timetable, advancing the power, speed and affordability of its products for the personal computer and low-end server markets well ahead of the curve. In other words, get out of the way.
With Itanium, Intel is hoping to bring Moore's Law to the high-end server architecture space, a segment that has been historically populated with companies building proprietary chip technologies to run in their own, high-priced machines. The company is dead set on becoming the de facto leader for price, performance and market share as it has before in other markets and hardware vendors are already lined up to take Itanium into production.
"Itanium architecture is our foray into the highest end of the enterprise space, and it's a very different space from where we've grown up," said Lisa Hambrick, director of enterprise processor marketing at Intel. "But we think we've shown a pretty impressive track record in taking over about 85% of the low-end server market. Itanium and future products in the architecture can bring us the same kind of success in at the high-end."
In short, Intel wants to take the fragmented, closed doors world of high-end server processors and turn it into another commodity market where its technology is the holy grail of price and performance. To anyone who watched Intel's attack on the desktop microprocessor market over the last five years and the subsequent price war and growth it set off across the PC industry, the implications of this strategy hit home.
"Itanium is hugely important, it should truly change the field of competition," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at research outfit Insight 64. "The guys who were protected before because you couldn't build large machines around commodity architectures have lost that safety net."
According to Brookwood, the Itanium line should account for anywhere from $1-2 billion in revenues for Intel in the near future with the potential to grow into between $2-4 billion in revenues for the company several years from now.
"The reason is this," Brookwood said. "Up until now the low end of the computer systems market has been characterized by very competitive behavior and this has resulted in continual price reductions in desktop systems and entry-level servers. The high end of the systems market has been far less competitive with Compaq, IBM, Sun and HP selling proprietary systems, and there's been no real market leadership in price and performance. Intel becomes the immediate leader in pricing and will become the leader in performance down the road. Server vendors who previously couldn't afford to play in the space are lining up as we speak."
On the most basic level, Itanium is Intel's first processor built on a 64-bit architecture identified by the hardware industry at large as IA-64. The current model on the market, known by the code name Merced, is only the first iteration of the technology for Intel and will be followed by improved versions known inside the company by names including McKinley, Madison, and Deerfield.
The 64-bit design improves on existing 32-bit technologies by offering massive amounts of memory and by utilizing elements of Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing, a joint Intel and Hewlett-Packard Co. development effort. These advancements speed the ability of a chip to process larger loads of information through parallel computing. The simile that Intel uses to illustrate the power of this feature is that it is not unlike adding more assembly lines to a manufacturing facility.
One of the most anticipated technological advancements in the 64-bit architecture is its inclusion of a Level 3 (L3) cache memory, which serves to free up space for the processors to operate more quickly than prior chips with less caching power. Another technology that the market has eagerly waited to get its hands on is Intel's "smart compiler" which speeds the manner in which instructions are sent to the processor.
Vendors and pricing
What Itanium brings to the business market is more powerful server architectures available at previously unheard of pricing. Pricing for the Itanium chip ranges from $1177 to $4227, depending on the version and how much cache it carries. Although the first machines brought to market by hardware vendors utilizing Itanium won't likely be bargain basement material; once the technology has gained momentum it is expected to bring supercomputer-like processing power to a far wider audience. This is expected to become even more of a reality as more powerful Itanium chips like McKinley arrive in the coming years.
With more than 30 hardware manufacturers developing products based around Itanium, and a good number already working with early versions of Intel's next generation McKinley processor, the market has clearly endorsed the product line wholeheartedly.
With a new era of competition around the corner, server makers are aligning themselves closely to the technology in order to build a presence in the high-end space or maintain recognition, such as is in the case of IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y.
"We welcome the technology because we're very well prepared for it and it blends so nicely with our own enterprise architectures," said Dr. Tom Bradicich, director of architecture and design for IBM's Intel-based eServer xSeries. "There have been inhibitors to taking the industry standard platform of Intel, Windows and Linux into higher enterprise, mission critical and data center applications. The introduction of the new technology annihilates many of these. The landscape will change in that the combination of volume economies and total cost of ownership of the platform will blend with mainframe inspired technologies. It's an extremely potent combination."
SearchHP offers additional information on Itanium.
SearchSystemsManagement provides resources on server requirements.
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This was first published in February 2002