Intel keeps the heat on Itanium

As OEMs demand server processors that produce less heat, Intel says that a low-power Itanium chip is still years away

A low-powered version of Intel's 64-bit processor is still several years off, the company said today.

The server chip, formally launched earlier this year, is designed to tackle high-performance tasks such as processing vast databases. But server manufacturers are increasingly demanding low-power chips for the rack-mounted servers that fill datacentres -- and Itanium generates too much heat to fit inside these so-called "high-density" devices.

Alan Priestley, strategic marketing manager for Intel's European enterprise marketing group, said Intel does not have plans to fit Itanium or other IA-64 chips into high-density servers for at least a year, if not more.

Demand for the rack-mountable "pizza box" servers is coming from several directions; companies looking to consolidate their servers into one physical space, for instance, and telcos who are siting datacentres around the fringes of their networks. Web hosting companies particularly benefit from the high-density model, which is well suited for handling high volumes of server requests.

Priestly conceded that high-density is currently driving server growth. "It's a rapidly emerging sector of the market. It's an area that's growing very fast," he said. But Itanium is designed for pedestal servers. For one thing, it needs an unusual amount of cooling equipment, filling about two-thirds of the space inside the box. Itanium dissipates 130 watts, far more than Sun's UltraSparc III, which has been moved to a 0.15-micron technology and dissipates 75 watts.

Intel's current top high-density product is the 1.13GHz Pentium III 512k, a new version of the Pentium III chip that shrinks the manufacturing geometry from 0.18-micron to 0.13-micron, reducing power consumption and heat dissipation. Pentium 4 will get the 0.13-micron treatment later, beginning to push it into the high-density range.

But while Intel has demonstrated a concept of a "pizza-box" 1U server based on Itanium's successor -- McKinley - that processor won't arrive for at least a year. And while engineers at Hewlett-Packard, Dell and other manufacturers are pushing Intel to come up with a lower-power version of the current Itanium, Intel says it is impossible.

"Future generations of Itanium will use high-density, but not the current generation," said Priestley. "There is no way to get the current processor into a 1U form factor. You couldn't do it because of the physical constraints of the processor."

Some engineers and analysts have suggested that the performance of Itanium or its successors will have to be crippled to bring heat emissions to a manageable level, but Priestley dismissed the idea. "You have to do a lot more that step down performance to decrease watts," he said. "Everything we're doing now is to drive MIPS (millions of instructions per second) and keep watts down, and we don't want to drop that."

"We've just brought the product to market, and it'll be a little while yet before we're optimising it for watts and not MIPS," he said.

Instead of performance cuts, Intel will look to new process technologies to bring power usage down. McKinley will shift the IA-64 line to a 0.13-micron process, and the process will later move to 0.1 microns.

A version code-named Deerfield, set for late 2002 or early 2003, will probably be Intel's first attempt to optimise IA-64 for power consumption over performance.

Intel's emerging connection technology, Infiniband, will also give a boost to high-density Itanium servers. With Infiniband, which will begin to be generally used next year, Intel plans to take components like storage out of the server box, leaving more room for the extra cooling equipment, as well as the additional memory that 64-bit chips require.

Intel is downplaying the demand for 64-bit computing in the high-density market, saying that at the moment the greatest demand for features like memory and floating-point performance is still in mid-tier to back-end systems.

"There is enough headroom still in the 32-bit space to drive forward into the high-density market," Priestley said.

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