Intels Itanium: a Chip Without a Home?

At long last, Intel has released its long-awaited itanium 64-bit processor to the masses.

At long last, Intel has released its long-awaited itanium 64-bit processor to the masses. The major questions that remain are where—and even whether—the Itanium fits into todays corporate networks.

Based on briefings I have had with Intel and its OEMs, the positioning of the Itanium is an extremely sensitive issue for them. Over the next few weeks, we expect to see dozens of different Itanium-based computers hit the market, starting at the bottom end with the workstation class and going all the way up to data-center-class machines. But despite the wide range of Itanium-based machines, there isnt a large number of uses for them yet.

Although the Itanium chip will have backward compatibility with current 32-bit applications, the major benefits of the processor will be untapped unless code is recompiled specifically for it.

On the basic desktop user level, there are no added benefits to running a 64-bit Itanium processor instead of a 32-bit Pentium one, unless your users run math-intensive code that can benefit from the Itaniums larger complement of 80-bit floating-point registers: 128, compared with the Pentiums eight.

Moving on to the low-range to midrange server level, there will be little or no benefit to replacing simple Web servers and file servers with Itanium-based ones. Sixty-four-bit processing does neither of these services any good, unless they are running some heavy-duty encryption or supporting a large number of simultaneous secure connections.

In the enterprise class, we expect to see high-performance databases managing data sets greater than 4GB created for the Itanium, but until the eight- to 64-bit processor servers become generally available and post impressive performance numbers, I dont think vendors like Sun will lose their high-end customers.

Itanium-based servers and the new operating systems created for them will also have to prove that they will be as reliable as those from their 64-bit competitors.

The moral of the story is that, although the 64-bit Itanium is a major milestone for Intel and its followers, this first 64-bit release doesnt have to lead to major server changes in your network.