Intel aims high with Itanium server chip

Hewlett-Packard and IBM were among a raft of server makers who detailed plans for Itanium-based servers and workstations that will be rolled out in the coming weeks and months. Dell already had announced plans to offer a rackmount server, expected to ship in mid-July, based on the new chip.

Itanium is the product of a seven-year joint development effort by Intel and HP and sports features that make it very different from Intel's existing PC and server chips. Most notably, Itanium is a 64-bit processor, which makes it better suited to running large databases and corporate applications such as data mining and online transaction processing. Intel's existing chips process data in 32-bit chunks.

Intel hopes Itanium will help it move up the food chain to compete with powerful Unix-based systems from the likes of Sun, IBM and HP, which dominate the midrange and high-end server markets today. Those machines run proprietary versions of Unix and specialized, 64-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors developed in-house by their respective vendors.

Itanium systems will be offered with a variety of operating systems including Microsoft Windows, various Linux distributions, and versions of Unix from IBM and HP. The servers and workstations are widely expected to be priced lower than their RISC-based counterparts, and corporations accustomed to relying on a single Unix vendor for their big servers will have the option to shop around for Itanium systems.

Unix vendors including HP and IBM have pledged to continue developing their proprietary RISC chips even while they promote servers and workstations based on Itanium. Only Sun has shunned the Itanium crowd, arguing that its decision to stay focussed on a single, proven platform will give it the edge over its rivals.

Itanium is unlikely to shake up the server market overnight, analysts and server vendors have said. Corporate buyers, never accused of being risk takers, will tread cautiously as they explore the new platform, and the availability of compatible applications may also limit adoption rates early on. In addition, Intel plans to release a more powerful follow-on to Itanium next year dubbed McKinley, and some analysts have said they expect that chip to make a greater impression.

"This is the beginning of a large scale industry transition," said David Graves, a spokesman for Dell's Precision workstations division. "Obviously, in a transition like this, things don't happen overnight."

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James Niccolai

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