Itanium 2 Proving Ground for IA-64

Intel was right to bet heavily on IA-64. Whether it executed effectively is not clear.

Im starting to feel sorry for the Itanium. Its as good an architecture as you can get in a processor, and it still gets a bum rap. Intel is finally getting IA-64 going with the Itanium 2, released last week, but the sputtering economy precludes its success. No ones going to spend extra money on processors in a cost-cutting climate.

Besides death and taxes, however, there is an inevitable, ever-increasing need for processing power. Intel was right to bet so heavily on IA-64. Whether the company executed on it effectively is not clear.

Most people thought the Itanium 2 (McKinley) would be the real proving ground for IA-64. The belief was that the first Itanium iteration was a proof of concept designed to show that Intel 64-bit computing was indeed available and that developers could start writing applications.

Those applications have been slow in coming, but many view as more surprising the apparent dearth of high-profile application support.

But most application vendors are indeed supporting the Itanium. That these vendors are taking the low-key approach is more a reflection of the state of the tech industry than the health of the Itanium.

There are some big problems with the Itanium, however. The cost of the processor is prohibitive, ranging from $1338 to $4226 (systems will start at $7K) each and yielding 1.5x to 2x performance gains over early Itaniums (according to Intel). That translates into a realized 10 to 20 percent gain when factoring in entire system performance. Xeon chips, meanwhile, can be bought for a few hundred bucks on eBay. Although the Xeon is significantly slower than the Itanium 2, there are more applications available for it. Following Intels advice, IT architects also began scaling performance by clustering lower-cost systems, somewhat contradictory to single-box SMP scaling a la SPARC and the Itanium 2.

Eventually, however, the performance of the Itanium will become necessary. The large 3MB on-die cache, additional execution units and greater system bandwidth are a perfect fit for data mining and encryption applications.

What is not clear is whether the Itanium 2 is the processor to sate the demand for more power. It might just take Madison/Deerfield or Montecito to show that Intel was right.

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