Itanium and Opteron Pit Power Against Compatibility

Intel's 64-bit Itanium processing architecture looked like a sure winner--until AMD's Opteron brought x86 compatibility into the mix.

February 11, 2005

8 Min Read
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Meanwhile, in Sunnyvale, Calif., AMD has changed its market image and quietly made headway in the enterprise market it has long coveted, producing a backward-compatible processor with all the benefits of 64-bit technology.

What went wrong for Intel? Will AMD continue to capitalize on this rare moment in business history? Stay tuned; plot twists abound.

The Itanium EPIC

The Itanium processor is Intel's designated successor to the x86 architecture processors that fueled the personal computer revolution in business. Intel teamed up with Hewlett-Packard to develop this chip as a next-generation architecture, beyond both x86 and RISC.

The series, which includes the Itanium and Itanium 2 processors, uses an architecture called EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing). EPIC combines instruction-level parallelism with prediction and speculation. That is, it works by doing many things at once, and by predicting a program's processor calls and having the instructions available as each call is made. The compiler makes decisions and some predictions with regard to parallelism, creating VLIWs (very long instruction words) that can be executed in parallel. Parallel execution lets the Itanium perform much more work per clock cycle, so the processor's clock speed is no longer the defining performance characteristic.Unfortunately, there's a downside: Programs written for the x86 architecture must be rewritten and recompiled to take advantage of EPIC's advanced features. This requirement has been the Itanium's biggest stumbling block.

Further slowing the Itanium's adoption has been a preference on the part of enterprises to install and upgrade proven systems rather than take a chance on expensive cutting-edge technologies. Market-research firms have taken note, continually revising their earlier rosy sales forecasts. IDC, for example, which at one time expected the Itanium market to hit $28 billion by 2004, now projects sales to reach only $7.5 billion by 2007.

Enter Opteron

As Intel's Itanium revenue foundered, rival AMD gained ground in the consumer and enthusiast markets with its line of 32-bit, x86-compatible Athlon processors. It then upped the ante, unveiling a 64-bit chip featuring an x86 architecture extension called AMD64, or x86-64. The new chip let the aging x86 architecture scale to address much more memory than 32-bit x86 products--theoretically up to 16 exabytes, as opposed to the 4 GB available to 32-bit processors. Initially code-named Hammer, the 64-bit processor line was eventually named Opteron for the server market and Athlon 64 for the consumer market, with only small differences between the two models.Unlike the Itanium chips, the AMD 64-bit processors run legacy x86 code seamlessly and natively. Although you must still tweak and recompile the code (much as you would when moving from 486 to Pentium processor technology), the process is relatively painless. What's more, the AMD processors are among the fastest on the market.

With AMD's sudden success and Itanium's slow rate of software conversion and market adoption, the Itanium processor line has been branded a failure in its original market. And so Intel and its partners are changing the game. Instead of going after the general-server space, Intel is now competing with IBM-Motorola's Power5 architecture, HP's PA-RISC and Sun Microsystems' SPARC processors for the high end of the market.

The chips on this playing field are designed for heavy-duty transactional processing in the world's largest data centers, whose systems run closed-source Unix (AIX, HP-UX, Solaris and TRU-64), Linux and Windows. They come inside servers whose price tags range from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

Despite its repositioning, the Itanium processor faces an uphill battle. IBM's Power5 chip is the current market darling, and Sun's SPARC processor is another popular choice. Compared with these products, the Itanium is relatively new and unproven, with a much smaller base of software from which to work. There's no guarantee that the processor will succeed even in the high-end computational space.

Intel isn't just battling the other processor makers; it's fighting to get back into Microsoft's good graces as well. Microsoft announced it won't support the Itanium processor in its upcoming Windows 2003 Compute Cluster Edition, a version of the operating system designed for high-performance computing.This development bodes poorly for Intel. Although more Itanium processor-based systems are shipping with Linux than with any other OS, and Windows CCE is still an unproven product, Intel still needs the Windows market. HP, for example, reports that one-third of the Integrity Superdome Itanium systems it sells are shipping with a 64-bit version of Windows for the Itanium processor.

Opteron Tightens the Screws

With Intel taking Itanium off Opteron's playing field, that leaves Xeon, Intel's earlier-generation, 32-bit P6 processor, playing catch-up with AMD's 64-bit architecture. Opteron has produced some impressive benchmarks, and there will be a native 64-bit version of Microsoft's Windows OS in addition to the several flavors of Linux that already run on the Opteron.

Not to be outdone, Intel gave Xeon its own x86-64 bit extensions, called EMT (Extended Memory Technology) 64. In a neat little role reversal, these extensions are compatible with the Opteron's.

With all of these factors in place--great performance, advanced technology and x86 compatibility--AMD quite simply put Intel in a position where it had to make a choice: Pit the new, very expensive Itanium processor against the extremely low-priced Opteron, or pit the Xeon processor against it. Xeon won. Even HP, Intel's most stalwart Itanium supporter, has discontinued its line of Itanium workstation-class machines.What's an IT Manager To Do?

In the general-server market, the decision is no longer Opteron versus Itanium; it's Opteron versus Xeon. We recommend IT server buyers get an Opteron-based server in and compare it with Intel's current 64-bit Xeon offerings.

If you're an IT manager and wish to install a high-end transactional server system or migrate off your current platform, follow some basic steps when considering Itanium-based products. First, determine which OS platform and productivity software you'd like to run, then see what your ISVs (independent software vendors) recommend. Make sure the ISVs are committed to Itanium for the long term.

Often, these vendors' professional services divisions can be of great help in choosing a hardware platform, not only by making recommendations, but also by relating personal experiences with a given platform. Companies such as Oracle, PeopleSoft, and SAP all have Itanium versions of their flagship products. When installing large transactional-computing systems like these, the software's long-term prospects on the chosen hardware platform is a key to protecting your investment.

As long as AMD continues to take advantage of Intel's every misstep, Intel will need to keep innovating and pushing. That's good for consumers, as AMD provides competition and innovates in the processor market. Look past the drama, and you'll find a company that has grown from an x86 clone manufacturer to a real market presence, with products that IT departments with x86 needs should consider for their server implementations.Steven J. Schuchart, Jr., a former Network Computing technology editor, is an analyst for competitive intelligence firm Current Analysis. Write to him at [email protected].

Intel was the first to unveil a completely new generation of 64-bit processors, the Itanium. But for all its innovation, Intel overlooked a crucial element: compatibility with earlier-generation x86 CPUs. Because applications must be rewritten and recompiled to take advantage of the Itanium's formidable computing power, sales of the product have suffered.

Enter AMD. Long viewed as a maker of low-end x86 clones, the vendor took the industry by storm with x86-64, a 64-bit extension of the 32-bit processing architecture. AMD's new lines--the Athlon 64 for desktops and the similar Opteron for servers--became sleeper hits, offering the backward compatibility the Itanium lacked.

Now the battle rages for 64-bit processing dominance. Intel must convince the market that its processors are best-suited for the most powerful high-end applications, and AMD must find ways to capitalize on the enterprise's current good will.

Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems each have arrangements with both AMD and Intel. All three computer makers are selling low-end, Opteron-based servers at a brisk pace. Only Dell, which remains exclusive to Intel, offers no Opteron servers. Dell, HP and IBM produce Itanium systems, but each company has a different motive.For IBM, the Itanium is merely an alternate offering to the PowerPC 5 RISC machines the vendor sells to the high-end computational processing market. Should the Itanium processor fail, the impact on IBM would be minimal.

Dell, on the other hand, has never been a player in the high-end computational processing market and sells only two Itanium 2-based units: the two-processor PowerEdge 3250 and the four-processor PowerEdge 7250. Dell was strong-armed by Intel into supporting the Itanium processor--and by all appearances, Dell hasn't exactly been enthusiastic about the chip.

Even after its divorce from Intel, HP has committed to the Itanium much more than the other manufacturers and has the most to lose. Among other systems, the company is selling the Integrity Superdome Itanium-based system, with a 64-bit version of Windows for the Itanium processor.

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