Opinion: Intel, AMD and the Enterprise Chip War -- Who Will Win?

When it comes to Intel's Itanium and AMD's x86 architecture, both companies are taking chances but also facing high hurdles.

July 23, 2004

3 Min Read
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CPU manufacturers don't have it easy. They spend years developing architectures, then have to make sure their technology and pricing keep up with their competitors' at the pace of Moore's Law. Inherent complexities and bottlenecks emerge as the technology develops--and the ways people use the technology change constantly. The manufacturers must either predict the market and come out with a timely product, or drive the market and make consumers follow their lead.

Intel has been trying to drive the market forward for the past several years with its Itanium processor--an almost complete departure from its x86 line, and the stepchild of Hewlett-Packard's PA-RISC line, which Intel hoped the Itanium would eventually replace. The processor fits squarely into the enterprise space, competing with the likes of Sun Microsystems' SPARC and IBM's Power architectures. It almost seems like Intel was asleep at the wheel, however, when AMD created its Opteron server and Athlon-64 workstation lines. AMD beat Intel to market and made the first x86 chips to include enterprise-oriented accommodations for 64-bit computing. It also vastly improved performance by increasing the number of registers in the processor. Unlike the Itanium's notoriously slow 32-bit performance, the Opteron and Athlon-64 work swimmingly in 32-bit mode, making ports to 64-bit applications necessary only in special situations, as when memory requirements exceed the 32-bit limit. On June 28, Intel grudgingly released the latest version of its Xeon processor, the Nocona, with little fanfare. This processor, also a 64-bit x86, will compete directly with the Athlon-64 line, and an upcoming version will compete with the Opteron.

Indeed, AMD is forcing Intel to pit its own Xeon architecture against the Itanium. Instead of upgrading your 32-bit Xeon-based server to the Itanium or to a RISC-based system, for example, you can simply switch to the next level of x86.

But Intel still seems to be betting on the Itanium architecture. Having made such a huge investment, now is not the time to switch tactics. From the company's point of view, an upgrade of a Xeon processor doesn't necessarily mean a switch to enterprise computing. If you're looking for a processor with extra security, reliability and scalability features built in, you'll want to go with the Itanium.

Itanium still faces some high hurdles. Its first version included a poorly performing x86 32-bit emulation mode. With the second version, Intel undertook a major redesign, claiming to increase 32-bit performance significantly, but not to the point of the chipmaker's native 32-bit processors.Also, the Itanium isn't based on the "open" architecture that the x86 is--if you buy an Itanium processor, it's strictly Intel--there are no competitors that manufacture a similar chip.

Then there's the market momentum. X86 is being used for more enterprise-oriented tasks--Web, database and computing chores that were once reserved for beefier architectures. The processors can now handle the loads--and the operating systems, such as Linux and newer Windows versions, have become more stable.

Rather than enhance an existing product for timely introduction, Intel took a chance with the Itanium and is trying to steer the market along its path. Meanwhile, AMD has breathed new life into the x86 architecture, proving that it's willing to take chances, and that it's worthy beyond the consumer market.

Many enterprises will find it more convenient to use the same architecture for both low-end and high-end applications, and if they can save money by going all x86, that's the route they'll take. Still, given its enormous resources, if Intel can get the Itanium down to a competitive price, it could prevail in the long run.

Mike Lee is Network Computing's editor.0

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