IT managers skip Merced?

Although Intel maintains that Merced, its first attempt at a chip for the IA-64 architecture, will not be "designed or marketed as some type of development tool," there are rumblings that the chip is merely a stepping stone to the second-generation IA-64 chip, code-named McKinley.

"Everyone will like Merced, but it will be used as a development platform, for [functions such as] getting the operating system tuned," said Tejas Vakil, vice president of server marketing at Dell.

That sentiment seems to sum up the growing consensus among Intel's partners and customers. Although IA64 will be a revolutionary step in server architectures, that revolution is unlikely to occur as soon as Intel would hope.

For example, IBM is developing its own chip set for the IA-64 architecture but is skipping Merced and is shooting for the McKinley time frame.

Hewlett-Packard, which worked with Intel on the IA-64 architecture, is already shipping its N-class servers with a motherboard that is IA64 compatible, but the upgrade is to McKinley, not Merced.

"It's like anything else that's infused into the technology market -- it's going to take some time for it to be adopted," said James Gruener, an analyst at the Aberdeen Group, in the US. "Ultimately, Merced-based systems will be available, but the volumes will depend on how customers perceive the value of the system out of chute."

Unfortunately for Intel, the key to that perceived value could be the software that supports vendors -- most notably Microsoft, which has vowed to offer Merced-ready software when the chip ships -- are able to provide in the Merced time frame, taking control from the chip maker's hands.

"It's an operating system problem, not so much a hardware system issue," said Mark Boase, an information resource management specialist at Lockheed Martin Tactical Aircraft Systems, in the US. "Until [Windows] NT can handle massive parallel processing, it doesn't matter what Intel does, it's going to be Microsoft that's holding them back."

Intel officials said they are much closer to settling the software issues surrounding IA-64 than many believe. According to Ron Curry, director of marketing at Intel's IA-64 division, there are already more OS vendors working on products for Merced than IA-32, and NT specifically is coming along quite well.

In addition, Curry claimed that the compilers today are meeting 90 per cent of Intel's performance targets, with the Microsoft and Silicon Graphics compilers doing very well. Curry also expects that the company will have some "interesting demos" of the technology in the near future that will demonstrate software preparedness.

That said, however, Curry acknowledged that there is validity in the notion that Merced will serve largely as a development platform.

"The bottom line is from anyone's perspective; the first member of any new family is a development vehicle by nature," Curry said.

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