Computer manufacturers are expected to start offering systems based on Intel's next-generation Itanium processor, codenamed Tukwila, early next year, offering users of the RISC-based chip their first quad-core option.
Tukwila, which Intel expects manufacturers to start testing toward the end of the fourth quarter this year, gives Itanium a much-needed boost in performance against its biggest rival, IBM's Power6 processor, which is faster than the current version of Itanium, experts say.
Tukwila, the first quad-core Itanium, will be built using a next-generation manufacturing process that shrinks the size of transistors on each core to 65 nanometers from the current 90 nm. The process means Tukwila will have 2 billion transistors, providing a significant increase in speed. The chip will also have 30 MB of on-die cache and dual integrated memory controllers for more balanced performance, Intel said.
The chip was highlighted during a recent meeting between InformationWeek and the Itanium Solutions Alliance, an industry group formed for the promotion of Itanium. The alliance on Monday released numbers that it said showed growing use of Itanium, which is used in high-performance computing and is Intel's only RISC-based processor.
Since the fall of 2005, the number of Itanium-based system applications has increased to 13,000 from 5,000, according to the alliance. In addition, the number of Itanium-based system deployments was 184,000 last year, compared to 140,000 in 2006; and total system revenue and shipments increased year-over-year by 30.8% and 36.3%, respectively.
While the numbers appear to reflect progress, Gordon Haff, analyst for Illuminata, said nothing has really changed over the last year or so with the platform. "Hewlett-Packard is moving customers of its older (microprocessor) architecture to Itanium," Haff said. "That's really the reason you're seeing these fairly high growth rates for the Itanium processor."
HP, which accounts for the majority of Itanium system deployments, is moving customers over from PA-RISC and DEC Alpha to Itanium. All three chips power HP-UX, the company's Unix operating system. HP sells Integrity and Integrity NonStop servers with Itanium. Other vendors that sell Itanium systems include Hitachi, Fujitsu, and NEC, all second-tier server vendors in North America.
While the current version of Itanium is slower than Power6, the former chip remains a strong competitor against IBM's product and the other main RISC-based chip, Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc IV+, Haff said. If Tukwila delivers what's promised in terms of performance, then the chip is likely to close the gap.
"We'll have to see how the comparative performance looks in early 2009," Haff said. "In the end of the day, however, with this class of product, performance is certainly not unimportant, but a lot of other things go into purchase decisions." Those other factors include the overall system, including the software offered, as well as support.
Intel plans to release after Tukwila a 32-nm Itanium processor, codenamed Poulson, which will have more than four cores per processor and more threads. Software running on older versions of Itanium will continue to run on Poulson, Intel says.
Following Poulson, the next version of Itanium is codenamed Kittson. Other than the codename, Intel has released no details on this chip.
Besides Unix, Itanium is also used to power Linux- and Windows-based systems. Microsoft has built a version of Windows Server 2008 and the SQL Server database for Itanium. In addition, Intel and Sun Microsystems are working together to port Sun's Java Platform Standard Edition for Linux and Windows on Itanium-based servers. The support is expected to be part of a standard update for Java SE 6 later this year.