Epic Challenges Ahead for Intel

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2006-09-11 Print this article Print

Opinion: Packaging a competitive Itanium system is a perilous, even if potentially rewarding, journey.

At the time that Intel chose to explore the path that led to Itanium, the popular but complex x86 architecture was looking to many chip designers like a technical dead end. As things turned out, the admittedly twisty road to a 64-bit x86 was smoother and faster than it initially appeared, and it certainly led to a destination that enterprise buyers greatly preferred.

Click here to read eWEEK Labs review of the newest Itanium 2 platform.
Advanced Micro Devices placed a major bet that enterprise preference for software continuity would trump the theoretical advantages of a bottom-up reinvention of mainstream microprocessor-based computing. AMD won that bet. After explicitly denying (as recently as 2002) any plans to do its own 64-bit extension of the x86, only two-and-a-half years ago did Intel admit the obvious—that the opportunity cost of refusing to do so would be a devastating mistake.

Meanwhile, the daring detour to Itaniums Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing has proved to be an (ahem) EPIC odyssey. Even the mythic journey of Odysseus took only 10 years, but its now been 12 years since Intel and Hewlett-Packard announced the joint initiative that led to the October 1997 announcement of what was then called the Merced IA-64 microprocessor.

Crucially, Intel announced in 1997 that "Merced processors will run all the software that currently operates on 32-bit Intel processor-based machines." Buyers took this to mean that IA-64 machines would run x86 code at speeds that at least remained competitive with the still-advancing state of the art of the native x86, but even Intel (let alone AMD) soon dashed that hope by finding more headroom for faster clock rates and higher levels of concurrency on Pentium-compatible chips.

EPIC seeks to identify concurrency opportunities at the time that code is compiled, rather than depending on complex silicon to find those opportunities at run-time. An IA-64 executable gives its "explicitly parallel" instructions to what can consequently be a simpler (and thereby potentially faster) processing engine.

The resulting instruction bloat, unfortunately, requires massive cache memories to avoid unacceptable burdens on the main-memory bus, yielding hardware trade-offs that dont appeal to most buyers today. Packaging a competitive Itanium system is therefore a perilous, even if potentially rewarding, journey.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at peter_coffee@ziffdavis.com.

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Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at salesforce.com, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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