Intel's latest foray into 64-bit computing--the Itanium 2--is now widely available in workstation and server systems, the company says. The Itanium 2, which follows its lackluster predecessor by a year, offers faster processing speeds and other internal improvements that Intel says set the chip apart from its Sun Microsystems and AMD competition. Sun has long dominated the 64-bit space, and AMD's recently announced 64-bit Opteron line has some interesting backers, including David Cutler, the Windows NT architect. Nevertheless, Intel says that Itanium 2 is the right product for the 64-bit market.
"Unlike AMD's offering, the Itanium is uniquely architected for this space," Intel Director of Enterprise Product Marketing Lisa Hambrick told me recently. "It's not a one-size-fits-all strategy. We're targeting high reliability and scalability \[with Itanium 2\]." Hambrick noted the problems with Sun's strategy: "Sun wants to reach down from \[the high end of the market\], but now it has to compete in a market that doesn't value \[the\] features \[it built into its SPARC chips\]," she said. "We focused the Itanium 2's features on what customers want."
To that end, Itanium 2 offers performance gains of one and a half to two times the performance of the original Itanium. The chip achieves these gains through a higher-bandwidth system bus, larger L3 cache (now integrated directly with the processor), streamlined internal design, and other improvements. The Itanium 2 reaches speeds of 1GHz (the original Itanium topped out at 800MHz).
Itanium 2's problem is perception. The original Itanium sold poorly: Although Intel refuses to divulge sales, I've heard that the chip sold less than 5000 units during its first year. Intel hopes to overcome manufacturers' doubts by demonstrating the Itanium 2's price and performance advantages over Sun's SPARC III line. "The proof is in the numbers," Hambrick said. "We're 30 to 100 percent faster \[than Sun\]." But major PC makers such as Dell are taking a wait-and-see attitude with the Itanium 2, so whether Intel can undo the damage from the first Itanium is unclear.
Microsoft will support Itanium 2 with revisions to its 64-bit Windows Advanced Server, Limited Edition and Windows Datacenter Server, Limited Edition products. The company will then update these products again when it releases Windows .NET Server late this year.