Itanium Arrives When the Chips are Down

Intel's release of the Itanium couldn't have come at a more interesting time.

Intels release of the Itanium couldnt have come at a more interesting time. Just a few years ago, everyone was concerned about megahertz, "Intel Inside" and collecting those stuffed Intel bunnies. Few people now probably know whats powering their systems. I barely keep track anymore, although the Polywell dual-Athlon system we received at eWeek Labs raised some eyebrows. Most consumers simply dont care about the processor as much as they used to.

Fortunately for Intel, the Itanium has nothing to do with those megahertz-clocking consumers. Or does it? As the prices of consumer chips bottom out and as the semiconductor industry worldwide faces its biggest downturn ever, its plausible that consumerism, that is, wanting things that arent needed at perceived inexpensive costs, has permeated IT.

It wasnt that long ago, after all, that IT professionals didnt really care about price as long as they got perceived increases in performance. When the Pentium Pro with the 2MB cache came out, I asked whether IT professionals would be willing to pay twice as much for a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in performance. The answer was a resounding yes.

A different set of people—the business operations executives—justified spending millions on large-scale software implementations that were doomed to fail. Everyone took it for granted that operating systems cost money and that hardware has to be replaced on an 18- to 36-month cycle.

The world has quickly changed. Corporations are looking for efficiencies in operations rather than increased production or throughput. Intels pitch for the Itanium, meanwhile, is still pure performance—its a Sun killer, so to speak. Intels first round of Itanium-compiled applications just happens to be for running benchmarks. HP, Dell and IBM will offer Itanium workstations quite soon, and servers will follow. But these vendors will surely pitch performance to the early-adopter crowd, rendering the first Itaniums as test-market collateral.

The Itanium will be faster than anything else, especially if ones lucky enough to find a correctly compiled application. But budget cuts and an overall lack of revenue force everyone to be more diligent when making purchases. I doubt that companies facing budget restrictions can justify spending more money on new architectures in this climate. The Itanium—now at least a year late—may have missed the boat of high profits for high-performance machines. Perhaps next year, when the Itaniums successor—McKinley—is released and when analysts predict the semiconductor industry will turn around, performance at any cost will once again crush pesky consumerism.