Itanium delay: Blessing in disguise?

Power users awaiting the first 64-bit workstations may not be thrilled, but many operating system and application vendors are breathing a collective sigh of relief
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor and  Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

The most recent Itanium delay may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for software vendors building operating systems for Intel's upcoming 64-bit chip.

Intel acknowledged earlier this week that it has more work to do on the chip, which is aimed at high-end workstations and servers. The result: the company pushed back the chip rollout, originally expected sometime during the second half of this year, to the first half of 2001.

While some IT customers may be dismayed by the delay, most of the OS vendors working on 64-bit releases for Itanium probably breathed a sigh of relief. With the exception of the 64-bit Linux releases based on the IA-64 Linux Project's work, most of the developers could use the extra time to get their wares out the door.

Intel has distributed some 5,000 Itanium evaluation systems, totalling some 15,000 chips. Spokesman Bill Kircos said the company's validation efforts are "taking more time than previously estimated". Validation is an industry term referring to the process whereby a chip company declares a product line ready for general availability.

Intel is focusing its validation work on the Itanium chip and accompanying chip set. The testing, which also takes in 64-bit operating systems and applications, remains far from completion.

Kircos said the delay was not related to a specific OS issue. "The driver [behind the validation effort] is really the processor and the platform, the silicon readiness. It starts there," he said, adding that operating systems and applications factor into the testing equation.

Intel insiders privately expressed disappointment with the lack of support on the OS side from Microsoft.

Microsoft, which had committed to delivering a beta of a 64-bit version of Windows 2000 by the end of the second quarter, two weeks ago produced its alpha release. Officials claimed the closed "technical preview" of Windows 2000, 64-bit Edition supplied to select software and hardware makers, was "more than an alpha, but less than a beta". Microsoft demonstrated the technical preview to attendees of its Professional Developers Conference last week in Orlando.

Simultaneously, Microsoft is working on 64-bit editions of Windows 2000 and Whistler, the successor product to Windows 2000. The alpha Whistler releases delivered to hardware and software testers last week were 32-bit versions.

Meanwhile the IA-64 Linux Project, formerly known as the Trillian project, is nearing the final release of its 64-bit Linux product. Eric Sindelar, who manages the IA-64 project at VA Linux, said his group was on track "or even ahead of schedule", but he allowed that the delay affects when they can ship the final version of the OS.

The delay, which has been known within the project for a couple of weeks, is understandable, according to Sindelar. "I'm a little disappointed, because we've been working hard on this for the past year-and-a-half," he said.

The work on developing releases based on the Linux Project OS is proceeding. TurboLinux, for example, issued a preview release of its own 64-bit Linux distribution in March.

"It's pretty solid," Sindelar said, noting that VA Linux will base its 64-bit hardware on a release such as TurboLinux's.

IBM also claims to be on track with its 64-bit Project Monterey release. Project Monterey represents a combination of the next version of IBM's AIX Unix, coupled with elements from SCO's UnixWare Unix. IBM released a first beta of Project Monterey in the April/May timeframe, and since that time, it has provided regular updates to hardware and software makers who are working with IBM on Monterey.

Miles Barel, program director of Unix brand marketing for IBM's Enterprise Systems Group declined to comment on how the possible purchase of SCO by Caldera Systems might affect Project Monterey. Barel said he didn't expect Intel's delay in Itanium delivery to have much of an impact, positive or negative, on IBM's Project Monterey work.

"We're still on schedule to be able to deliver a final release when Intel said they would GA the final hardware," Barel said, adding that IBM's plan was to wait until Intel's rollout to actually deliver final code. In the interim, IBM's focus will be to "continue to build up the number of apps that run on the system [Project Monterey]," he said.

Intel expects that Itanium customers, corporations needing high-end servers or workstations, will take some time to kick the tires on new systems before making the call on whether to deploy them en masse or not.

Intel now plans to launch a pilot program -- which will allow its PC-maker customers, companies such as Dell -- to deliver test systems to corporations, in the fourth quarter.

Essentially, the program will distribute a limited number of near-production-level Itanium chips in a limited number of systems to a limited number of customers. Intel believes these pilot systems will lead to companies rolling out Itanium systems over the first half. As such, it is likely that the chip will be generally available later in the first quarter.

In order to get to production levels on the chip, Intel will do another revision of the current chip. It expects the revision will bring clock speed ratings up to 700MHz to 800MHz, the speed at which Intel plans to launch the chip.

The company has said Itanium chips will debut at 733MHz and 800MHz and will support a 266MHz system bus, which is the pipeline to memory and other system components. Itanium systems will utilize synchronous dynamic RAM memory.

While consumers might not be impressed with the clock speed ratings on the chip, Intel says it has tuned the Itanium to get more work done at a given speed than a Pentium or Celeron chip.

See Chips Central for daily hardware news, including an interactive timeline of AMD and Intel's upcoming product launches.

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