'Tukwila' Itanium servers due early next year, Intel said

A quad core version of Intel's Itanium chip will appear in servers in early 2009, Intel said Monday.

Intel will start shipping a quad-core version of its Itanium processor to system vendors in about six months, with the first servers based on the chip due in early 2009, Intel said Monday.

Intel said the new chip, code-named Tukwila, will roughly double the performance of the current, dual-core version of Itanium. Aside from the additional cores, Tukwila includes 30M bytes of on-chip cache memory -- about 15 per cent more than its predecessor -- and Intel's QuickPath Interconnect technology, which should speed data transfer between components.

Intel won't say yet what clock-speeds the chip will be offered at, except that it will launch at up to 2GHz. It will be manufactured using a 65-nanometer process, a step up from the current Itanium.

Itanium is designed for high-end servers running large databases, data warehouses, and transaction-heavy business applications. Intel positions it as a substitute for RISC-type processors like IBM's Power and Sun's Sparc, and as a lower-cost alternative to mainframes. Most Itanium servers are sold by Hewlett-Packard, although they are also offered by Fujitsu, NEC and others.

The chip has not lived up to the expectations of Intel, which at one time thought it would eclipse x86-type processors such as the Xeon and Opteron. Itanium has suffered from frequent delays and a lack of compatible applications, and from the fact that AMD and Intel extended the trusty x86 design by adding 64-bit extensions.

Intel and HP, which helped develop Itanium, are therefore keen to show momentum behind the chip. Joan Jacobs, executive director of the Itanium Solutions Alliance, said there are now 13,000 applications available for Itanium, up from 10,000 two years ago. The alliance announced Monday that Sophos will port its anti-virus software to Itanium systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux by the end of the year.

Proponents also point to growing sales. The number of Itanium systems sold in the fourth quarter climbed 36 per cent from a year earlier, led by Europe and the Asia Pacific region, according to IDC. Analysts note that the Itanium sales are starting from a lower base, however, so big percentage gains are easier to come by.

In fact Itanium holds only a sliver of the overall server market. Vendors sold about 55,000 Itanium servers in 2007, compared to 417,000 RISC servers and 8.4 million x86 servers, according to Gartner. Intel estimates that 184,000 Itanium-based systems had been sold altogether by the end of last year.

Analysts say Intel needs to generate more sales from other vendors besides HP, which accounts for as much as 80 per cent of Itanium systems revenue, said IDC Research Director Steve Josselyn.

HP plans to retire its own PA-RISC processor at the end of the year, so customers who want to stay with HP's HP-UX or OpenVMS operating systems have little choice but to buy Itanium servers.

"Itanium is basically HP's high-end processor, in the same vein that Power6 is for IBM and Sparc is for Sun," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "If you look at it in that context, Itanium is doing fine. If you look at it in the context of taking over the world, it's not doing so fine."

Still, he said Tukwila should roughly match the performance of IBM's and Sun's current RISC processors. "It probably puts Itanium where it ought to be in terms of competitive performance, against Power6 in particular," Haff said. "Itanium has been a little bit on the slow side versus Power6 today."

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