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Issue of December 2002 
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Tech Update: Itanium 2
How Intel plans to conquer the highlands

It took 20 years for Intel to conquer the 32-bit processor platform. It is now moving to a different battlefield and hopes to gain supremacy for high-end 64-bit servers. Here's the battle plan. by Brian Pereira

“We are trying to create a lead time before the actual product is launched,” says William Wu.

While putting the finishing touches to our March 2002 cover story, 'The 64-bit question: Will enterprises bite the bait?' we wondered what strategies Intel had to establish itself in the high-end enterprise server space. After all, this space had long been dominated by those who manufactured proprietary RISC/Unix systems. Intel made an entry into this segment last year with the launch of the first generation Itanium processor, but few companies came forward to buy Itanium systems. By the time Intel launched Itanium 2 in July 2002, it put together a compelling strategy to sell more Itanium 2 systems, and increase market share for high-end enterprise servers.
All along Intel has played the price/performance card to maintain leadership in the 32-bit processor space, and it plans the same for IA-64 (Intel Architecture for 64-bit computing).

"Our strategy is to maintain the price band yet put more value into the next generation of processors. If you look at our P-III Xeon product, we used to have a 700 MHz chip with two cache sizes and later a 900 MHz chip with 2 MB cache. We kept the price similar. So we add more value like increasing cache size and processor speed but keep the pricing almost the same across a specific processor family," says Philip Wee, Marketing Manager, Enterprise Business Development, Intel Technology Asia.

Another strategy for Intel is to develop the platform and even the whole ecosystem.

The Early Access Program

Intel long ago realized that the success of a processor or technology depends on the development of the platform. And for this there are two key things that are necessary:

  • Availability of software applications, operating systems and services for the platform
  • Migration paths/strategies

To accelerate this, Intel launched its Early Access Program (EAP). Some see this as a quick path for porting applications to the Itanium 2 platform. But EAP gives developers fast access to the Itanium (and other Intel processor) platforms. EAP is available for Pentium, Xeon and Itanium processors, and also for Intel's Communications and Telecom products.

In India, there are close to 20 companies (mostly ISVs) participating in EAP. The list includes Persistent Systems, Infosys, Bindview, Pramati, i-flex and TCS.

According to GB Kumar, General Manager, Internet Solutions Group, Intel Asia, more than 500 ISVs are
participating in the EAP program and over 300 applications have already been ported or optimized for Intel
architecture.

The program allows partners to get 24-hour Web-based Intel premier support accounts, expert consulting at a discounted price and online training courses. Intel has set up a data center in Mumbai to facilitate 24-hour access for its partners.

In addition, EAP partners have access to expert marketing tools, the latest development systems, new software and tools.

EAP partners get a 10 percent discount on Intel's software tools apart from the discounts offered by OEMs like HP, IBM and Dell.

For more details on EAP log on to: www.intel.com/IDS/eap

PLATFORM
The first generation Itanium was not so successful because there weren't enough applications for that processor and companies could not port their applications fast enough to the IA-64 platform. What's more, production versions of operating systems were not yet available for Itanium, which embodied an entirely new architecture called EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing).

Learning from its past mistakes, Intel took several initiatives to develop the Itanium platform to ensure there were enough applications available by the time Itanium 2 was launched. One such initiative is the Early Access Program (See box).

"We are trying to create a lead time before the actual product is launched. So ISVs develop applications and porting work happens before the processor is actually launched. The Early Access Program is an initiative towards this. ISVs and enterprise customers can come to our porting/testing centers and test their applications on the new platform. Depending on the case, we may also take the box to the customer's site and do the testing in his environment, with his applications," says William Wu, Intel's Asia Pacific Marketing Manager for the Itanium Processor Family.

It seems this initiative is finally beginning to pay off. Today there are at least three operating systems platforms ported to IA-64: Windows, Linux, HP-UX. Over 300 applications have already been ported or optimized for Intel architecture. New applications are in the final stages of development and are expected to be available in the first quarter of 2003. To accelerate this process, Intel is offering ISVs tools like compilers, and assistance through porting centers around the world.

But Intel is also leveraging on its engineering strengths and investing heavily in R&D. It knows that it also has to be strong in technology to gain the upper hand in high-end servers.

TECH-NNOVATIONS
The fruits of all this investment are technology innovations like hyper-threading, which makes the operating system believe there are two processors in the system, thereby boosting performance. From Itanium 2 onwards, all future processors will include hyper-threading technology. Intel is also incorporating this technology into the Pentium and Xeon processor families.

All along Intel has strived to boost processor performance. In its labs it created various techniques like branch prediction, pipelining and NetBurst microarchitecture. These features help software vendors enhance the performance of applications and operating systems running on Intel-based servers.

Future processors will incorporate smaller structures thanks to 90 nanometer process technology. This technology enables smaller processors at faster speeds and allows for additional performance enhancements such as increased cache size. Already Itanium and Xeon processors have the cache memory integrated on the chip core itself. Intel is also considering multi-core and multi-die designs for future processors.

ROADMAPS
Xeon and Itanium processor families are key elements in Intel's enterprise strategy. It has defined future timelines for these processors. Xeon will be positioned at entry-level to mid-range servers; Itanium is for high-end servers and will move down to the mid-range.

"Of course, there will be overlap areas, but Xeon and Itanium will co-exist for a long time," says Wu.

RISC Vs IA-64

During a presentation at the Nasscom-Gartner Summit, recently held in Mumbai, Gartner Analyst Mathew Boon said that RISC/Unix systems "will survive as a profitable, niche through 2010." Boon said RISC systems will co-exists with Intel 64-bit Itanium servers, in the high-end power-driven segment. "RISC/Unix systems will be used for large CPU complexes, while Itanium will be preferred for small CPU complexes," said Boon.

This means that RISC/Unix systems would continue to be used in 'Big iron' systems that use multiple processors and offer massive computing power. Such systems are generally high-availability, high-reliability systems used for critical tasks that run round the clock. There are three major players in this segment: HP, IBM and Sun. Eventually, Intel could also join this list as it gets into verticals, beginning with Telecom.

So, the RISC/Unix players are not going to abandon their (proprietary systems) but have chosen to offer Intel Itanium servers as well.

IBM is investing heavily in Linux and in the long-term, we can expect it to aggressively sell Itanium servers loaded with Linux. HP has a strategy of offering customers a choice—so it will offer a choice of operating systems for its Itanium systems: Windows, Linux and also HP-UX. HP has already ported HP-UX 1.5 to Itanium and will eventually port OpenVMS and non-stop kernel as well.

So the real battle then is not RISC/Unix Vs IA-64, but RISC/Unix Vs IA-64/Linux and RISC/Unix Vs IA-64/Windows.

Future processors in the Itanium Processor Family include Madison, Deerfield, Montecito and Chivano. Madison (expected in 2003) will be a smaller chip than Itanium 2 as it will be manufactured using smaller 0.13 micron process technology. It will have 6 MB integrated cache. Deerfield (also expected in 2003) will be a low-powered, more affordable Itanium chip. Montecito and Chivano (expected in 2005-2006) will incorporate technology from Compaq's Alpha chip.

"We are actually targeting Itanium at the high-end space where RISC processors have been dominant. Our strategy is to migrate customers from proprietary to open architecture, rather than from 32-bit to 64-bit systems," says Wee.

Actually, Intel sees two migration paths. One, it hopes RISC vendors (like HP, IBM, Unisys etc), who are now designing Itanium systems, will eventually abandon RISC and commit totally to Itanium. Secondly, there's application migration. For instance customers running a particular application, say Microsoft Exchange, in a 4-way 32-bit environment, may need more power and switch to 4-way 64-bit computing.

HIGH PERFORMANCE COMPUTING
But high-end RISC systems are known for their high-availability, high-reliability features. Intel will have to match this, so it is working closely with High-Performance Computing (HPC) users especially in the research and scientific
community.

HPC solutions are used for scientific research and for industry applications, ranging from petroleum and aerospace to finance and bioinformatics. Intel's HPC solution offerings include processor, platform and interconnect/networking technology, software tools and middleware, and solution services. Some institutions are using Itanium-based 'supercomputers' for such applications.

"We are showing people how to build HPC systems. There are two drivers for HPC: the floating-point performance and the open source code. Most users are able to do their own porting," says Wu.

Intel's HPC wins include the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Cornell Theory Center (CTC), and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).

"Our strategy is to maintain the price band yet put more value into the next generation of processors,” says Philip Wee.

BEYOND SILICON
Besides focusing on semiconductors, Intel is doing much to advance the platform and plays a catalyst in nurturing ecosystems.

The Enterprise Platform Group has devised a Building Blocks strategy to ensure that new processors can take advantage of specific platforms (See next story).

Intel also has initiatives directed at specific verticals like Banking & Finance and Telecom. The Keystone initiative, for instance, aims to accelerate the adoption of Intel architecture-based systems and solutions in the highly-specialized financial industry by providing a customized program of information and services.

Going a step further, Intel wants to develop ecosystems and has created a set of Solution Blueprints for this purpose.

With all these strategies in place, it looks like Intel can grab more territory in the high-end server segment. A new report from Gartner Dataquest indicates that in 2003, revenues from servers built on Intel processors will, for the first time, exceed revenue generated from RISC/Unix systems.

 
     
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