Itanium stays in beta

The first IA-64 systems are shipping this summer, but they won't get much farther than development labs

Itanium, Intel's first foray into 64-bit computing, is finally about to show up in product form from several vendors. But an early look at the new hardware reinforces the notion that Itanium will be little more than a preview of its big brother, McKinley, set to arrive next year.

Intel is moving to 64-bit computing, with the IA-64 platform, in an effort to break into the lucrative market for high-end servers now dominated by RISC chip makers such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and particularly Sun Microsystems. Itanium, the first IA-64 chip, has been years in the making and was originally supposed to arrive at the end of 1999.

After several delays, vendors say the design has now stabilised, after a long process of debugging, and production-level chips are to arrive at the end of May, according to sources. IBM plans to be first to release an Itanium-based workstation this summer, about a month after Intel announces the chip is shipping in full production volumes.

A lingering question is just why anyone would invest in an Itanium system instead of waiting for McKinley, the more powerful IA-64 chip that will arrive about a year later. Two key elements will be missing from Itanium products when they first ship, a large number of applications, and Windows, but both will have arrived when McKinley ships next year.

The answer from Itanium manufacturing partners is that, while they think early adopters will be keenly interested in the chip, they don't expect Itanium products to make much headway in the market and are focusing their development resources on McKinley. IBM, Dell and HP will not even create their own Itanium hardware, but are simply rebadging Intel-manufactured boxes.

"We would have done things a little differently if we were developing the hardware ourselves," said Susan Davi, IBM's worldwide IntelliStation product manager, previewing the IBM Itanium workstation this week.

Intel has said about 400 key 64-bit applications have been or will shortly be available on Itanium, but that figure is dwarfed by the thousands available on existing RISC platforms. And while versions of Unix and Linux will run on Itanium, 64-bit Windows will be available only in the form of a preview release. Windows "is crucial" if people are to buy Itanium boxes, an IBM spokesman said.

The product's main appeal could be as an IA-64 development platform, manufacturers confirm. "This is for future thinkers, for early adopters," said IBM's Davi. "Anything they port to Itanium will work on McKinley."

Indeed the IBM workstation hardware -- identical to what will be shipped commercially -- looks like a development kit, with its seven fans for cooling the two massive CPUs, its layers of insulation and its massive, heavy casing. The workstation, the IntelliStation Z Pro, will run two 800MHz Itaniums with 2MB of cache, up to 16GB of memory and an 18.2GB or 36.2GB hard drive.

In keeping with the early-adopter theme, one of IBM's first customers for the workstation will be the US' National Centre for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

It will be followed by a four-way server later in the year -- the lack of tools may partly explain IBM's decision to start the market off with a workstation, rather than attacking the server market right away.

Compaq and HP will come out with servers later this year, but Compaq will not release workstations until next year. Dell will release both servers and workstations and Gateway will release a server.

64-bit computing speeds up many computing tasks, particularly the use of databases, by increasing the number of instructions that can be processed at once. However Itanium, unlike McKinley, does not necessarily beat 32-bit chips at all tasks -- graphics, for example, do not perform as well.

Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

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