Don't wait for Itanium

Itanium. One simple, strange word from Intel about its upcoming processor sparked a new round of hype in the technology industry and throughout the media. Despite the buzz, however, you probably won't see the new chip in PCs for years. The earliest versions, scheduled to ship in mid-2000, will appear mostly in high-end servers and workstations. In time, however, this new technology will change the way people compute.

The Itanium may not run your next PC, but as the company's first Intel Architecture-64 processor, it represents a huge step away from the x86-based architecture of previous and existing Intel processors. The x86 family ranges from the newest Pentium III all the way back to the 8086, introduced in the late 1970s.

The move to a new architecture is coming because over the years Intel has fixed problems and added features to the x86 design, making the chip increasingly complex. Today the x86 is "a really difficult architecture to work with", says Linley Gwennap, editorial director of Microprocessor Report. Gwennap discussed the processor (code-named Merced) at the Microprocessor Forum recently. He calls the x86 design "poorly conceived and overly complex".

A fresh (64-bit) start

By creating a brand new chip, Intel and partner Hewlett-Packard start fresh with a new 64-bit architecture. The 64-bit designation means the processor can process data in chunks of 64 bits, unlike today's Pentium III processors (and PC chips from Intel competitors), which process only 32 bits at a time. Some of Intel's competitors in the server space, where Itanium will debut, can already accommodate 64-bit processing, and others are developing 64-bit chips. AMD's recently announced SledgeHammer also offers 64-bit capabilities, but it will rely on current 32-bit architecture.

Itanium's new architecture means the processor should simply work better, says Jim Carlson, director of marketing for IA-64 systems at HP. Designers have traditionally coaxed better performance out of processors by increasing the clock speed, but the new architecture enables chips that can do more at lower speeds.

"By doing this at the fundamental architecture level you're a little ahead," Carlson says. Later, as IA-64 chip speeds increase, even better performance will result.

As always: new chips need new software

However, all that power won't do much to boost the performance of today's largely 32-bit mainstream software. That's why an Itanium in your next desktop doesn't make much sense today, says Howard High, an Intel spokesperson.

A system powered by an Itanium will run your 32-bit software, but probably not any faster than a considerably less-expensive Pentium III. Intel will continue for years to produce new processors for PCs based on the x86 instruction set, because they offer plenty of power at a lower price, High says.

Today the average PC user doesn't need 64-bit power, but the people who operate high-end servers and workstations can use it. Some 64-bit server software is available, and many customer companies write their own programs, High says. Because such high-end servers often help run the Internet, this is where most people will first see the power of Itanium, in the form of increasingly fast Web sites.

Reaching the PC

Itanium's path to mainstream PCs could be long and winding, but Gwennap says there's no technical reason why Intel won't go the distance. However, he points to a number of things that must happen before the PC market jumps from x86 to IA-64. The first is the growth of 64-bit software: for people to be interested in a 64-bit processor, good 64-bit software must be available to run on it, he says.

This won't be an issue because "today's PC is not the pinnacle", Gwennap says. With 64-bit capabilities, future systems should be easier to use, work better, and do more.

Carlson says he also expects future 64-bit software to offer big performance improvements over current programs. Graphics and interfaces will improve, and communicating with your PC will get easier.

"This is the kind of thing you can use to recognise speech and could get you talking to your computer," Gwennap says.

A price drop for high-end processors is another necessity for acceptance, Gwennap says. That should occur as Intel refines the manufacturing process and produces new generations of IA-64-based chips, he says.

Finally, Intel must also want PCs to transition to IA-64 architecture, Gwennap says. Right now, the company is making a fortune on x86-based processors such as the Pentium III. But in the future an all-IA-64 processor line could reap numerous benefits and increased profits, he says.

Clearly, a Millennial Chip

So, just how long until you can walk into a store and buy a PC with a descendent of today's Itanium?

Gwennap predicts that by mid-2002 a new chip, currently named Deerfield, will reach a price attractive to very high-end PC manufacturers. Sometime in 2003 the next version of that chip should drop low enough to make it affordable to the mainstream PC market. HP's Carlson agrees with these predictions.

But High says Intel sees a very different timetable for Itanium's appearance in PCs.

"We don't see it going there [to PCs] for the foreseeable future, five to ten years," he says.

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Tom Mainelli

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