Intel's 3GHz P4 heats up CPU fray

Historically, Intel drops a technological grenade of sorts at the doorway as it exits its current processor area, to confuse and misdirect the competition. Bill O'Brien thinks this could be the case with Intel's latest Pentium 4 release.

Historically, Intel has dropped a technological grenade of sorts at the doorway as it exited its current processor area and moved on to the next. The intent is to confuse and misdirect the competition while Intel gains a foothold in whatever that next level of processor technology might be. That could easily be the case for Intel's latest Pentium 4 release; or, the processor giant might be trying to solidify its IT presence in a market suddenly filled with competition.

The Itanium was never a sure bet, despite the 300-pound gorilla that brought it to market. A new CISC processor in the predominantly RISC-y IT world needs more than just the gravitas of a corporate logo to achieve prominence. So Intel has taken the last year or so to salt the software developer arena with its IA-64, giving rise to almost 90 percent of the enterprise software that Itanium would need to justify its existence. With the software base in place, the latest version of that CPU, the Itanium 2, is crouching in the blocks and being pushed by almost every name-brand server vendor.

Of course, while Intel has tried to shrug off the potential competition from AMD's Opteron, it will also shortly come under fire from IBM's PowerPC 970 -- both are dual 32/64-bit CPUs, against the Itanium's 64-bit-only soul. The two offer the promise of a bit more flexibility, and some better measure of cost effectiveness, in migrating your enterprise from 32-bit to 64-bit software. Intel's counter is the Pentium 4-based Xeon, a 32-bit CPU that's already been used with Itaniums in server configurations. With hyper-threading technology incorporated into the CPUs, each Xeon packs the potential wallop of two processors, akin to the shared-core hardware solution introduced with IBM's Power4 processor.

What better thing to do than to make a sweeping flank attack on the workstation space? Here, AMD has been making steady inroads against Intel so it's no surprise that it's also here, in the 1P workstation world, that Intel has planted its new 3.06GHz Pentium 4. Aside from being the fastest workstation CPU in the known universe, Intel has also endowed its new Pentium 4 model with hyper-threading technology. All that applies to the hyper-threading Xeons you've packed into your servers now applies to the Pentium 4s you can stuff into your workstations. It makes an effective dam against the flood of AMD Athlon XP 2700+ and 2800+ processors, which should be available at the beginning of next year. But while this new P4 has all the earmarks of being the latest Intel technology grenade, it's not really. Intel isn't leaving, it's defending.

Hyper-threading on a 1P workstation is near miraculous, and you should understand that miracles aren't always daily occurrences. The benchmarks Intel quotes use software that's optimised for hyper-threading. The benchmark results are impressive, too. An AVI-to-MPEG conversion application, for example, ran to completion about 13 percent quicker with hyper-threading enabled. If you create presentations, moving them from DV camera to DVD becomes faster, and that's the case for most, if not all, of the video authoring and graphics rendering software that has been made aware of hyper-threading technology. But that's also a limitation: Older "hyper-threading-dumb" applications may see little or no benefit other than from running on a 3.06GHz CPU with a 533MHz front side bus and 1,066MHz RDRAM memory. By itself, that's not a bad thing at all, and AMD has nothing that will touch it yet and probably won't for at least another quarter, if then.

The end result is that, effectively, Intel has undermined its own Xeon workstation platform -- but in an arena where the MP Xeon has only been a marginal choice because of its cost. In doing so, however, it's striking at the competition by putting Intel back into the picture in those very same marginal areas with a 1P hyper-threading Pentium 4. Following Intel's lead will certainly raise your TCO by a small degree over competitive non-hyper-threading choices, but the added productivity, assuming the software is capable, will actually increase your ROI.

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