'Tukwila' Itanium servers due early next year, Intel said

Quad-core processor will roughly double the performance of Intel's current, dual-core version of Itanium

Intel will start shipping a quad-core version of its Itanium processor to system vendors in about six months, with the first servers based on the chip due in early 2009, Intel said Monday.

Intel said the new chip, code-named Tukwila, will roughly double the performance of the current, dual-core version of Itanium. Aside from the additional cores, Tukwila includes 30MB of on-chip cache memory -- about 15 percent more than its predecessor -- and Intel's QuickPath Interconnect technology, which should speed data transfer between components.

Intel won't say yet what clock speeds the chip will be offered at, except that it will launch at up to 2GHz. It will be manufactured using a 65-nanometer process, a step up from the current Itanium.

Itanium is designed for high-end servers running large databases, data warehouses, and transaction-heavy business applications. Intel positions it as a substitute for RISC-type processors like IBM's Power and Sun's Sparc, and as a lower-cost alternative to mainframes. Most Itanium servers are sold by Hewlett-Packard, although they are also offered by Fujitsu, NEC, and others.

The chip has not lived up to the expectations of Intel, which at one time thought it would eclipse x86-type processors such as the Xeon and Opteron. Itanium has suffered from frequent delays and a lack of compatible applications, and from the fact that AMD and Intel extended the trusty x86 design by adding 64-bit extensions.

Intel and HP, which helped develop Itanium, are therefore keen to show momentum behind the chip. Joan Jacobs, executive director of the Itanium Solutions Alliance, said there are now 13,000 applications available for Itanium, up from 10,000 two years ago. The alliance announced Monday that Sophos will port its anti-virus software to Itanium systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux by the end of the year.

Proponents also point to growing sales. The number of Itanium systems sold in the fourth quarter climbed 36 percent from a year earlier, led by Europe and the Asia Pacific region, according to IDC. Analysts note that the Itanium sales are starting from a lower base, however, so big percentage gains are easier to come by.

In fact, Itanium holds only a sliver of the overall server market. Vendors sold about 55,000 Itanium servers in 2007, compared to 417,000 RISC servers and 8.4 million x86 servers, according to Gartner. Intel estimates that 184,000 Itanium-based systems had been sold altogether by the end of last year.

Analysts say Intel needs to generate more sales from other vendors besides HP, which accounts for as much as 80 percent of Itanium systems revenue, said IDC Research Director Steve Josselyn.

HP plans to retire its own PA-RISC processor at the end of the year, so customers who want to stay with HP's HP-UX or OpenVMS operating systems have little choice but to buy Itanium servers.

"Itanium is basically HP's high-end processor, in the same vein that Power6 is for IBM and Sparc is for Sun," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "If you look at it in that context, Itanium is doing fine. If you look at it in the context of taking over the world, it's not doing so fine."

Still, he said Tukwila should roughly match the performance of IBM's and Sun's current RISC processors. "It probably puts Itanium where it ought to be in terms of competitive performance, against Power6 in particular," Haff said. "Itanium has been a little bit on the slow side versus Power6 today."

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64, said there is a market for Itanium beyond HP customers. He pointed to NEC, Fujitsu, and SGI, among others, who are switching to Itanium from their proprietary mainframe platforms. The volume of sales there is small but the revenue is fairly significant, he said.

Microsoft also is throwing some weight behind Itanium. The processor is valuable for the company because it gives it a hardware platform to compete in high-end environments where RISC-based and mainframe computers are dominant, Brookwood said.

Microsoft has kicked off a program to persuade financial institutions that Windows on Itanium is a good low-cost alternative to mainframes, said Ward Ralston, technical product manager for Windows Server marketing. "These are long sales cycles, but these are the rocks we're flipping over to start moving the needle with Itanium," he said.

IDC's Josselyn said what happens on the Windows side over the next 18 months will be important for Itanium. "If they can't get a lot of additional Windows-based applications developed for the platform, it's going to stump the growth. Windows-based servers is the biggest segment of the overall server market these days," he said.

Intel is developing follow-ons to Tukwila, code-named Poulson and Kittson, although it still won't say much about them. Poulson will have more than four cores, a new microarchitecture and be manufactured on a 32-nanometer process, said Robert Shiveley, worldwide marketing manager for Intel's server group.

Most analysts agreed that Itanium is here for the long term, which wasn't always certain given its rocky start. "Like John McCain thinks we can't walk away from Iraq, Intel thinks they can't walk away from Itanium," Brookwood said. "One thing you have to give Intel credit for is that they are nothing but persistent."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.