SAN MATEO, Calif. Intel Corp. claimed victory in the speed race for server microprocessors last week, but competitors and analysts said the Itanium 2 performance metrics the company released only marked a warmup lap in a marathon competition ahead.
Intel estimates the Itanium 2, formerly called McKinley, will exceed 730 in base SPECint and 1,400 in base SPECfp benchmarks, compared with 690 and 1,098 for the dual-core IBM Power4 chip and 610 and 827 for the Sun Ultrasparc III. Analysts and competitors credit Itanium 2's 3-Mbyte on-board Level 3 cache (up from 1 Mbyte in the first-generation Itanium) as a key element in the performance specs. As few as 2,000 first-generation Itanium systems shipped last year, in part because the CPU's integer performance was lagging.
Chip-level performance is just one of the hurdles Intel's 64-bit architecture faces. Among the chief challenges, Intel must rally a broad software base behind the new architecture, get OEMs to deliver a wide array of systems and provide building blocks that will scale from single- to 16-processor systems and beyond. Intel hopes to clear most of those hurdles this year, setting Itanium 2 up for broader market acceptance sometime next year when it releases two third-generation Itanium parts.
"They have their ducks in a row now," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR. "I don't think Intel counts on a lot of volume this year. Their hope is IT spending picks up next year as they roll toward the Madison and Deerfield versions; 2003 is where the knee of the curve kicks in for them."
On the software front, as many as four 64-bit versions of Linux now support Itanium, but a production version of a crucial piece of software Microsoft Corp.'s .Net operating system is not expected to become available until late this year. Production versions of key database and application programs including Oracle 9i, SAP, SQL Server and DB2, will require qualification on .Net and thus lag its arrival.
Several server makers, including Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NEC and Unisys, are expected to voice support for Itanium 2 when it is formally launched this summer. They will likely announce two- and four-way systems initially. Some are crafting in-house chip sets for 16- and 32-way systems expected to ship late this year or early in 2003.
Intel will roll its own chip set, the E8870, which can be used to construct four-, eight-, 12- or 16-way systems using a scalability port and a switch that links as many as 4 four-way server nodes into a single system. That chip set will support the PCI-X bus and will be announced this summer.
Analyst Krewell said Itanium may not scale as well as other architectures because the processor does not build in a memory controller as Sun did with its Ultrasparc III and Advanced Micro Devices will with its upcoming Opteron CPUs. And use of the separate scalability switches to link four-way nodes could introduce additional latency, he added.
Intel will stick with its strategy of large caches and no integrated memory controller through three generations of Itanium chips, all of which will use a common 611-pin grid array cartridge socket. That socket stability is expected to help make OEMs confident enough to roll a generation of card-upgradable systems. "Through 2004 we will be using the same 6.4-Gbyte/second processor bus," said Jason Waxman, a marketing manager for server processors at Intel.
Indeed, next year Intel will apply its 0.13-micron technology to the 0.18-micron Itanium 2 core to deliver Madison, a version with a whopping 6-Mbyte L3 cache, and a lower-power variant dubbed Deerfield. Those chips will be followed by the Montecito, an enhanced microarchitecture built in 90-nanometer (0.09-micron) technology in 2004.
AMD is launching the Opteron, its 64-bit version of the traditional X86 architecture, later this year, at first in single- and dual-processor versions, which are expected to carry a 156-kbyte cache and to use the HyperTransport interface. Four- and eight-way versions are to follow in mid-2003.
For its part, Sun Microsystems is not saying when it will upgrade its 1-GHz Ultrasparc III, which was released last November. A version with an upgraded memory controller is next on tap.
Sue Kunz, director of marketing for processor products at Sun, said Intel's advantage in chip benchmarks could evaporate when systems-level benchmarks on real application code become available next year. As Intel focuses on excellence in instruction-level parallelism, Sun is doing more to enhance its thread-level parallelism, in part as an effort to gain ground in applications performance.
"These SPEC benchmarks are not a good yardstick. I'd like to see numbers on SAP, Peoplesoft and Notes applications real people run," Kunz said.
At 75 watts, the Ultrasparc III also provides lower power consumption than the hot Itanium 2, which is expected to hit 130 W. The high heat dissipation means some OEMs will not use Itanium 2 in growing market areas such as dense rack-mounted systems for telco central offices and Internet data centers. Intel is aiming Itanium at high-end IBM and Sun servers, a portion of the market that is now stagnating under tight IT budgets. "In tight economic times we can deliver greater performance at lower prices," said Intel's Waxman. "This lets IT managers consolidate on common platforms using Windows in the data tier."