Intel Absolutely Committed to Itanium

As rumors swirl that Intel is secretly working on a Pentium-based alternative to Itanium, VP Mike Fister claims the chip maker is fully commited to the processor.

Seeking to quell speculation that Intel Corp. is secretly working on a Pentium-based alternative to its slow-selling 64-bit Itanium, a senior executive asserted this week that the chip maker remains fully committed to its Itanium line.

In a sharp rebuttal to media reports, Mike Fister, senior vice president in charge of the Itanium line, argued that Itaniums new EPIC architecture remains the best design for competing against RISC-based 64-bit designs used by market leaders Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co.

"Theres nothing that can replace an Itanium processor when your competition is a true RISC 64-bit machine. Nothing, nothing, nothing," said Fister in an address Monday to developers at a company forum in San Francisco.

Questions over Intels commitment to its new Itanium product line arose last month after the San Jose Mercury News reported that the chip maker was covertly developing another 64-bit design, called Yamhill Technology. Unlike Itaniums EPIC architecture, sources said, the Yamhill chip is based on the X86 design used in Intels popular Pentium chips.

Such a design would prove attractive for many enterprise customers, since it would enable them to continue using much of their existing 32-bit applications even as they migrate to 64-bit workstations and servers.

Intel has declined to comment on the report, which caused rumblings throughout the industry, especially among hardware and software makers who have already invested heavily in supporting Itanium.

While not directly addressing reports about Yamhill, Fister sought to ease possible developers concerns about Itanium by revealing its product road map through 2004, including openly discussing for the first time its plans for the fifth generation of the chip, code-named Montecito, to be built using 90-nanometer (0.09-micron) technology. Current Itaniums are built using a 0.18-micron manufacturing process.

"No matter what you think or read with people writing speculation about Intel … were absolutely committed" to continuing the Itanium product line, said Fister, general manager of Intels Enterprise Platforms Group.

Despite Fisters remarks, some Intel observers still believe the chip maker may yet release a 64-bit chip based on the X86 architecture.

"It makes a lot of sense. I think its a no-brainer," said Kevin Krewell, a microprocessor analyst for Cahners In-Stat/MDR, only moments after Fister spoke.

Krewell said Intel probably wants to keep the alternative chip design under wraps until Itanium has successfully been adopted by enterprise users.

"They cant undercut Itanium right now; it hasnt really gotten its foot in the door.," he said. "I dont think theyll start talking about it until the third-generation Itanium, code-named Madison, comes out, maybe in late 2003."

While Krewell believes Intel could market both products, other analysts disagree.

"I think if Intel did offer two different 64-bit solutions, one compatible with X86 and the other compatible with Itanium, it could greatly confuse the market," said Nathan Brookwood, an industry analyst with Insight 64. "The result could easily be that the IA-64 [Itanium] line as we know it would be constrained to a very small niche at the extremely high end, which would be very hard to sustain from an economic standpoint."

Nevertheless, Brookwood agreed that many enterprise customers, particularly those who have yet to utilize 64-bit systems, would find the reported Yamhill design to be more attractive than Itanium.

"If customers really thought there was an easier way to get to 64-bit without going through that transition to Itanium, I think that many of them might well opt to stay with the X86," he said.

Much of the speculation about Itanium is fueled by the chips lackluster sales since its introduction last May. According to leading market researchers, the processor appeared in less than 1 percent of servers shipped worldwide last year.

Intel said it expects Itanium sales will strengthen significantly when it introduces the second generation of the chip, code-named McKinley, this summer. The newer chip will offer up to twice the performance of the first-generation product, Intel says, and will appear in a wider array of products from top-tier computer makers.

"Its a fantastic product, and this is going to have even broader support from the industry," said Fister, further noting that HP and Compaq Computer Corp. have announced theyll eventually stop making their proprietary PA-RISC and Alpha 64-bit chips and eventually adopt Itanium.

IBM also demonstrated its commitment to Itanium this week by unveiling a four-way to 16-way McKinley-based server at the Intel Developers Forum.

Such support should erase any concerns developers have about the future of Itanium, Fister said.

"The testimonies from companies like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq Alpha migrating their legacy lines to Itanium should speak volumes to you," he said.