Itanium pilot programme takes off

Experimental Itanium systems will be available to selected participants in early 2001. Intel says hundreds are due by the second quarter

Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip is slowly making its way to the market. One month into a pilot programme that allows users to kick the tires on the new chip, Intel estimates that roughly 20 pilot systems have been placed with large corporate customers.

Arguing that Itanium would not see the same initial demand as a chip like the Pentium 4, Intel chose a pilot programme for the first phase of its Itanium launch. PC makers that participate in the program can ship small numbers of near-production-level systems to customers for evaluation.

"There's a select group of people we're working with to get some of the pilots [Itanium systems] out," said Jason Waxman, Intel's Itanium platform marketing manager. "We've got a couple dozen pilots that are under way."

Some of the early evaluators include Wells Fargo Bank and the European European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN). During the first quarter of 2001, Intel expects the number to increase to "hundreds of pilots", Waxman said.

Intel plans to gradually ramp Itanium production as pilot programme customers begin deploying Itanium systems over the course of the first half of 2001. The chipmaker plans to reach full production by the end of the first half of 2001.

The 64-bit Itanium chip was developed to address applications that require large amounts of memory. Offering more work per clock cycle than a Pentium chip, it is geared toward the high-end applications used by large corporations.

Although Itanium is viewed primarily as a chip for servers, companies such as Dell also plan to offer it in workstations.

Dell will begin selling a Itanium-based Precision workstation based on the pilot program beginning in early 2001. The "development" workstations will have a limited configuration, with either single or dual-Itanium processors and synchronous dynamic RAM.

So far, Dell has shipped a handful of prototype Itanium workstations to customers, company officials said, although it has not yet shipped pilot-program workstations.

"We're seeding [workstation] customers right now," said Gretchen Cole, marketing director for Dell Precision Workstations. "The first generation of Itanium will be a development platform [for Dell]."

The first Itanium workstation customers will include content creators, CAD designers, and software developers, Cole predicted.

Dell is qualifying its new workstation for use with several operating systems, including Microsoft's 64-bit version of Windows 2000 and 64-bit versions of the Linux operating system. It will likely come preloaded only with Windows, however.

Despite the efforts of Intel, Dell, and others, it may be some time before Itanium systems are sold in large numbers, analysts said.

The Itanium ramp-up is "probably going a little slower than I think Intel would have hoped, but not a lot slower", said Mike Feibus, principal at Mercury Research. "This was never meant to be a million-unit kind of thing."

Then again, for systems to reach high volumes Cole said it all depends on the software. "People will migrate over when there's a clear benefit. They need to have the software available," he said.

For his part, Intel's Waxman said Itanium demand has been consistent with the chipmaker's expectations. The Itanium chip will come in four flavours: two clock speeds, 733MHz and 800MHz, will be paired with two different amounts of integrated cache, 2MB or 4MB.

However, the Itanium chips are expected to compare in price with the current generation of large-cache Xeon chips from Intel, which cost between about $1,700 and $3,500.

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