Intel Once Again Delays Itanium Chip

After multiple delays, Intel on Thursday once again pushed back the release of its next-generation Itanium server chip to the first quarter of 2010.

The Itanium chip, code-named Tukwila, was originally due for release by the middle of this year. Tukwila is being delayed for certain "application scalability" enhancements that Intel wants to make to the chip architecture, the company said in a statement. The chip maker declined to elaborate on the type of enhancements it plans to make.

During system testing, the company saw an opportunity to enhance the architecture for "highly threaded workloads where contention for system resources plays a dominant role in application scalability," said Patrick Ward, an Intel spokesman.

Itanium chips are 64-bit quad-core processors designed to run fault-tolerant servers that require high uptime. The chips utilize a different instruction set than x86 server chips, and are intended to compete with other server processors based on RISC architecture, like Sun's Sparc and IBM's Power chips. However, the chips have not seen much success, with only a few vendors like Hewlett-Packard selling Itanium-based servers.

The Itanium is mainly designed for mainframe-based applications that require plenty of memory bandwidth, like scientific computing and financial transactions, said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat. Hewlett-Packard has made huge investments in Itanium and may have asked Intel to make particular design changes to meet the needs of its enterprise customers, he said.

"The Itanium processor is pretty much a custom solution for HP. HP has a huge investment in this, and they buy most of the processors," McGregor said.

But the delay could affect HP's ability to win new customers as competitive chips like IBM's Power continue "firing on all cylinders," wrote Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, in a blog entry.

"Delays to Itanium matter less to Intel and the server makers who use it (meaning HP first and foremost) than in the case of x86 Xeon, where a few months' delay can have a major revenue impact," Haff wrote. Customers for servers like HP's Superdome and NonStop value enterprise-class capabilities more than performance, he wrote.

Itanium has been plagued with development problems that have delayed its release multiple times. Intel earlier this year delayed Tukwila's release to the middle of this year to add a faster interconnect and support for new technologies like DDR3 memory. The last Itanium chip, code-named Montecito, was released in 2006.

The delay however hasn't changed manufacturing plans for Tukwila. Tukwila chips will still be manufactured using the old 65-nanometer process, Intel's Ward said. Intel currently manufactures chips using the 45-nm process and will upgrade to the 32-nm process later this year. Intel upgrades its manufacturing process every two years to make chips faster, smaller and more power efficient.

Itanium chips are not volume chips like PC processors, and are mainly customized to meet the needs of server makers, McGregor said. Performance and reliability are a larger measure than size and power, and based on requests from server makers, extra transistors help improve system performance to scale application performance, he said.

During an investors conference last week, Intel's CEO Paul Otellini tried to build enthusiasm around Itanium by pointing out the uncertainty surrounding the future of the Sparc chip after Oracle acquired Sun. Otellini said customers could increasingly adopt Itanium servers as they abandon Sparc chips. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison has however denied any plans to abandon the Sparc chip.

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