Sun Microsystems Inc. delivered a scorching attack on Intel Corp.s 64-bit Itanium processor to an audience of analysts and reporters Wednesday, deriding the chips design and lambasting it as the “most expensive disaster in the history of high tech.”
The unusually harsh rhetoric from Sun executives marks the companys counterassault against Intels recent promotional efforts touting the 1GHz Itanium 2, released last month, as a faster and cheaper alternative to Suns UltraSparc-based systems.
While Sun stands as the longtime leader in sales of high-power 64-bit servers, where systems can cost more than $1 million a piece, it has been hard hit by a downturn in sales since mid-2000 and increased competition from its top rivals, Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM.
And while Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., is a relative newcomer in the 64-bit market, Itanium has the backing of HP, which co-developed the chip and has announced plans to migrate all of its high-end servers to it.
One day after Sun unveiled its fastest processor yet, a 1.05GHz UltraSparc III, company executives used a conference call with analyst and reporters to fire back at Intel, which has heavily promoted Itanium 2 by touting its price/performance advantages over Suns UltraSparc III.
Shahin Kahn, Suns vice president of computing systems, led the assault, mocking Itanium as a “seriously bad idea” and predicting itll eventually be viewed as the “most expensive disaster in the history of high tech,” an apparent reference to the more than $1 billion Intel is speculated to have invested in the chip.
Suns attack on Itanium confirms that the computer maker already is feeling threatened by the new rival, one analyst said.
“I think theyre reacting a bit like they have their back against the wall,” said Kevin Krewell, a processor analyst for In-Stat/MDR, in Sunnyvale, Calif.
: Sun Blasts Intels Itanium”>
Indeed, Sun, of Santa Clara, has been under increasing pressure lately to protect its market share as its sales have fallen and stock price has plummeted. In its most recent fiscal year, Sun posted a $628 million loss, a dramatic turnaround from the record profits it posted only two years earlier when a surge in Internet-based business fueled demand for its most powerful and costly high-end servers that were capable of handling thousands of transactions simultaneously.
Although rivals HP and IBM already have gained ground on Sun, Itanium 2 may pose a greater threat, one analyst said.
“Itanium 2 systems deliver high levels of performance and cost less. That gets peoples attention,” said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif. “Suns probably hearing about it from their own customers.”
Kahn appeared to express frustration over just such thinking when one questioner asked whether Itaniums new architecture, known as Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computer (EPIC), is superior to Suns older UltraSparc design.
Kahn fired back that EPIC was not really new, just a variation on a old architecture known as VLIW (very long instruction word), which was first marketed in computer processors in the late 70s by Multiflow Computer Inc., a company that has since gone out of business. In essence, EPIC is based on a design that industry leaders had long since rejected.
“If EPIC was announced by anybody other than Intel, we wouldnt even be talking about it,” he said. “Its only the fact that Intel has such great credibility on 32-bit computing it is giving them a shot at even making that case.”
Given Itaniums heritage, Kahn said, its not surprising that reports have surfaced claiming that Intel is secretly developing another 64-bit chip, code-named Yamhill, thats based on the X86 instruction code used in its current 32-bit Pentium 4 and Xeon chips.
“I think if Intel had their wits about them, and it sounds like they do, they would have an alternative,” Kahn said. “And that alternative is Yamhill.”
Told of Suns comments later, Intel spokesman Bill Kirkos firmly denied the assertion.
“There is no Plan B to Itanium,” he said, contending that extending the 32-bit X86 architecture to 64-bit computing would not be an effective solution.
“Bolting on 64-bits to a processor does not get you the reliability and scalability you need in the “big iron” area, and all our major competitors know that,” Kirkos said.
However, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., Intels main rival in the PC processor market, has announced plans to introduce X86 64-bit processors starting late this year with a desktop version code-named Clawhammer, followed by a version designed for servers, called Opteron, in the first half of next year.
Sun executives even endorsed AMDs approach.
“We all agree that AMD has taken a much better approach entering the 64-bit space by extending that x86 architecture and maintaining that ISV (independent software vendors) community thats out there,” said Susan Kunz, director of marketing and business development for Suns Processor and Network Products Group, during Wednesdays call.
While Intels spokesman expressed surprise at Suns harsh criticisms, he declined to rebut most of his rivals contentions, choosing instead to once again assert the chip makers main contention that Itanium-based systems offer better performance and cost less than comparable Sun servers.
“What Itanium brings to the high-scalability, big iron market is something customers havent seen before, which is a choice of operating systems, a choice of platforms and a choice of systems,” said Kirkos, highlighting Itaniums availability from competing vendors and ability to run varying operating systems. By contrast, UltraSparc servers are only available from Sun and can only utilize the companys proprietary Solaris OS.
Aside from attacking Itaniums perceived flaws, Suns Kahn said the arrival of Intels new chip amid one of the worst business climates ever will assure its failure.
“Of all the years you could pick to ask customers to go to a new system, new architecture, new binary platforms, and go through the pains and cost of migration, this would be a really bad year, and thats exactly the year they choose to announce it,” Kahn said.
“Id bet 20 bucks that Sparc will outlive EPIC over the next 10 years,” Khan said.
Intels Kirkos, however, said even in todays tough economic times, increasingly cost-conscious companies will still be drawn to Itanium.
“We think thats a very compelling offer, especially in todays market, where cost effectiveness is ranked at number 1.”
Realistically, the market reaction will probably run somewhere in between, said analyst Brookwood.
“The cost of switching has to be factored in on any major procurement,” he said. “So for customers already using Sun Solaris-based systems, theres almost no way they can make the Itanium systems attractive enough. … But for those rolling out new systems or starting with a blank slate, Im sure theyll take into consideration that Itanium systems cost 20 to 30 percent less than Suns.”