FALL IDF: Intel not ready for dual-core Itanium

Unlike its main rivals, Intel Corp. will wait several years before it rolls out dual-core processor technology that makes one processor work almost as efficiently as two.

Intel has pegged “the middle of the decade” as a likely arrival date for dual-core versions of its high-end Itanium processor, said Mike Fister, senior vice-president and general manager of Intel’s enterprise platforms group, during a Tuesday meeting with the press in San Jose at the Intel Developer Forum. Putting two processor cores on the same piece of silicon can provide a huge boost to server performance, as has been shown in systems already shipping with IBM Corp.’s Power4 processor. Hewlett-Packard Co. plans to produce dual-core PA-RISC chips next year, and roadmaps from Sun Microsystems Inc. show it bringing out dual-core UltraSPARC III chips by 2003 as well.

Despite its rivals’ plans, Intel does not see dual-core processors fitting into its current near-term roadmaps for Itanium. Intel just released the second-generation Itanium 2 chip this year and has found a sweet spot with the chip in servers with between one and four processors. It would not make sense for Intel to head toward dual cores until Itanium became widely popular in much larger servers and numerous high-end applications arrived for the new chips, Fister said.

“It’s a natural thing to do and a neat concept, but there are times when you have to do other things,” Fister said in an interview. “You have to have applications that can take advantage of the technology.”

Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., brought out the 64-bit Itanium chips to help the company pull in revenue from markets dominated by the likes of Sun, IBM and HP, which have made their own high-end chips. Although Intel has not gained much traction in the high-end server space thus far, analysts have predicted the company will pull in substantial revenue in the latter part of the decade.

Intel is waiting for software makers to port their applications to the Itanium architecture, as well as for sales to pick up. Although the company boasts more than 100 applications for Itanium right now, it needs a wider array of products to come out in order for Itanium to take off. When more software arrives, Intel’s customers may see a boost from dual-core chips, Fister said.

“Almost all applications can take advantage of multiple-core processors,” Fister said.

In particular, high-end business software such as databases could see a large performance gain on servers with dual-core or multi-core processors.

With Itanium being one of the largest chips around, it makes sense that Intel would shy away from a dual-core strategy at this time, according to one analyst.

“Itanium is too big right now to fit two cores on a chip,” said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with the consulting company Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif. “If you can’t do it, you will clearly see less benefits in the technology.”

Fister does not see either Intel or its rivals as making a mistake by going with multi-core processors now or later. It depends more on the company’s current situation, he said.

Sun, for example, sells massive servers with more than 100 processors and could use dual-core chips to provide its customers with a nice upgrade. Sun’s high-end systems allow a user to remove an old processor board and replace it with a board using the company’s latest chips. A Sun customer could essentially double the processor count in a server by upgrading to dual-core chips without buying a new chassis.

Fister said such a move could be good for Sun in that it would help the company make up for performance shortcomings in its chips when compared to IBM and Intel.

“In the case of Sun, if you are disadvantaged in absolute performance, you might try to make up for it in density,” he said. “We happen to enjoy excellent performance on the Itanium 2.”

Intel will release new Itanium chips next year, still under the Itanium 2 brand. The company will deliver a chip code-named Madison some time between June and September 2003. It will follow that with a chip code-named Deerfield that consumes less power than current Itanium chips.