The RISCs of adopting Itanium

Build it and they will come, the saying goes. But in the world of IT, saying, “build a couple of different versions of it, and maybe they’ll come and check it out,” might be closer to the truth.

Because IT often plays a mission critical role and can cost a company dearly when something goes wrong, managers aren’t likely to take chances with new and untested technologies. That’s why it’s not surprising that sales of Intel’s Itanium, the chip giant’s foray into 64-bit territory, were subdued.

Calling the first version a “development” release, Intel and Itanium co-developer Hewlett-Packard recently introduced Itanium 2 to the market. Though industry observers say that the latest version shows performance enhancements, this may not be enough. For the processor to succeed, it needs hardware and software support. But not all the players are in line. Dell for one isn’t ready to test the Itanium waters just yet and has said it will not be offering servers that run on Itanium 2. And Microsoft has pushed back the release of a .Net OS designed to run on the 64-bit chip until spring of 2003, although it is releasing the Windows Advanced Server Limited Edition 1.2, an OS built on the 64-bit code for those who want to test Itanium.

HP and Intel, of course, remain optimistic, while arch-rival Sun Microsystems Inc. holds a different view. Where the former say RISC (reduced instruction set computer) processors are nearing the end of their useful life, the latter vehemently disagrees.

an epic journey

What separates Itanium from other 64-bit processors is its fundamentally new design philosophy, HP says.

That’s why it has decided to take more than a chance on the new and unproven technology. The company, along with the newly acquired Compaq, has announced it will be retiring its RISC line of servers – HP’s PA-RISC and Compaq’s Alpha – and moving over to Itanium.

This is necessary because RISC processors are nearing the end of their physical limits, said Geoff Kereluik, the national alliances manager for Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.

“We’re at the point now where we simply can’t shrink electrons, and the inherent design philosophy means we can only carry out a finite number of transactions per clock cycle. So then the possibilities are getting more cycles per second, and we’re starting to reach the end of that possibility.”

Itanium’s own EPIC (explicitly parallel instruction computing), by contrast, is in its infancy, he said.

The EPIC architecture eliminates some of the bottlenecks other processors run into because it can execute instructions in parallel fashion, said Intel Canada’s country manager Doug Cooper in Toronto.

But Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H., said there are no significant performance differences between the Itanium and RISC processors at this time. While Itanium 2 is very competitive, it doesn’t by any means leave existing RISC processors such as IBM’s Power4 in the dust.

And RISC processors haven’t reached the end of Moore’s law, he said. Power4 and Sun Microsystems’ UltraSPARC will continue to be in the same performance ballpark as the Itanium processor. There are a lot of different techniques, such as multithreading, that can still be applied to boost performance.

“I mean after all, CISC (complicated instruction set computer) processors were supposed to be at the end of their road 10 years ago when RISC was this big thing. And you still see Intel selling CISC processors.”

That’s because design philosophies don’t always remain pure – they tend to get muddied over time. Intel clearly borrowed ideas for its 32-bit CISC processors from RISC technology. And, down the line, RISC vendors may do the same with Itanium.

If you look at RISC processors today versus a RISC processor when the original concept emerged, it’s hard to figure out where reduced comes from in “reduced” instruction set, said Dean McCarron, president of Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz. That’s because in order to extract performance gains, a lot of fairly traditional tools end up getting used with companies exploring such options as parallelism. And that happens regardless of what your basic approach to processor design is.

In the end, it’s not the architectural design concept that will matter, McCarron said. What’s important is performance, cost effectiveness and having software that runs on the processor.

Intel has a lot of resources to rely on – more so than the RISC manufacturers, he said.

“I think there are some long-term questions about Sun’s ability to continue to drive competitive performance and price performance,” said Brian Richardson, a program director at Meta Group in Stamford, Conn.

Because Intel will be selling chips to vendors all over the world, the volume of chips it’ll be producing will be much higher than any RISC technology that’s been developed today, driving down cost for the Itanium chips, said Lorne Weiner, Canadian marketing manager for enterprise server solutions at HP Canada in Mississauga. In addition, Itanium will support more than one operating system, whereas most RISC processors support proprietary operating systems. This will also drive down cost. HP has moved its PA-RISC operating system, HP-UX, over to the Itanium and a Linux kernel is also available for Intel’s 64-bit chip.

It’s a volume game, and proprietary vendors won’t be able to compete. They will eventually have to adopt Itanium, and when they do they’ll be behind, HP says.

Although the volume economics commanded by Intel’s market share has driven down the cost of Intel’s 32-bit chips, Illuminata’s Haff doesn’t see the chip giant wielding the same sort of power in the 64-bit field.

“At least in the near term, Itanium is not going to build that kind of volume.” You’ll see it more on HP systems than anywhere else, he said.

Sun, not surprisingly, is skeptical of Intel’s ability to be more cost effective than RISC processors.

“I’m waiting to see that. They don’t have the volume. And they’re not going to be driving that for a long time with only a 100 applications,” said Sue Kunz, the director of marketing for processor and network products at Sun in Sunnydale, Calif.

software, please

HP, meanwhile, says it has hundreds of independent software vendors (ISVs) porting their software to the Itanium processor. Furthermore, because Itanium has a 32-bit compiler built into it, it can support existing 32-bit code – although with no performance gains. As well, HP admits, because the 64-bit processors are more costly, there wouldn’t be much benefit to running 32-bit apps on 64-bit systems.

“You’d want to really question why you’re doing it, because the price point of the 32-bit processors is so much lower than the price point of the Itanium processors,” HP’s Kereluik said.

Porting software to Itanium, in most cases is nothing more than a recompile, according to HP. The ease or difficulty of porting will depend on how deeply the application accesses and controls the kernel of the operating system. So single threaded applications will be much easier than multithreaded applications.

It’s not a question of moving to Itanium but of moving operating systems, Haff said. If the move also means supporting a new OS, it becomes more complicated.

Sun says that because Itanium does well in floating point performance, it’ll do well in a small segment of the scientific market, but not on the transaction-oriented applications that businesses need. “They’ve basically targeted the wrong market,” Kunz said.

But industry observers, such as Haff, say that while the first release of Itanium performed well in floating points but not very well in other aspects, Itanium 2 has shown a marked improvement in integer performance.

This translates into business apps such as ERP, CRM, databases and Web services, HP said.

The kinds of applications that will likely be moved to Itanium 2 will be back-end enterprise applications –

anything that is very computationally intensive, McCarron said. Itanium will also do well with some scientific computing applications, he said.

Memory-intensive applications that would benefit from Itanium’s increased address space will also likely migrate to Itanium, said Microsoft Canada’s Carol Terentiak.

This will remove barriers for developers who before had to design their applications not to exceed the upper limits of addressable memory, she said.

However, RISC systems already provided a platform for those developing memory-intensive apps, Haff said.

Paul Salvini, the chief technology officer at Side Effects Software in Toronto is pleased with the extra memory capability afforded by the 64-bit processor.

The 3D animation and visual effects company has ported its software to Itanium, a process that took less than a week, didn’t require much code rewrite and was “surprisingly easy,” he said. Although Side Effects has always supported RISC processors as well as 32-bit systems in the past, Salvini said the RISC systems are expensive.

“What is nice about the Itanium 2 is it’s taking the Intel line, which has enough volume to have prices that’ll be very attractive to studios,” he said.

PeopleSoft is another vendor porting its software over to the Itanium line. It too has found the process to be relatively easy, said CTO Rick Bergquist of the Pleasanton, Calif.-based company.

For the most part, it’s recompiling and testing.

However, while the ERP vendor is porting its database server to Itanium, it will keep its application server logic in 32-bit, as it does with the 64-bit systems it already supports. The database server can take advantage of the increased memory, which the application layer doesn’t need, he said.

Just because you’ve got the ability to go to 64-bit doesn’t mean you should, he said.

“You’ve got to make sure that it’s because you can get advantage [from] the extra addressing versus you’re just going to take extra space to address things, and you don’t need it.”

This is a lesson everyone learned when Windows went from 16-bit to 32-bit, Bergquist said. “All of a sudden your apps ran slower because they required more memory.”