Intel is set to launch the long-awaited Tukwila version of its Itanium processor line, but underneath all the snarkiness over the lengthy development cycle lie some interesting questions about the future of high-end processing.
The Tukwila is a quad-core processor that contains more than 2 billion transistors, putting it beyond the cutting edge of commercially available high-end processors. Aimed at mission-critical enterprise applications that are currently the realm of the Itanium 9100 (Montecito), the device marks the latest chapter in the Itanium saga, which saw its debut in the 1990s as the future of advanced computing slowly give way to a parody of sorts as broad industry support never materialized.
Now, after several false starts over the past few years, Intel has to convince the skeptics that this latest version will live up to those original promises. To that end, the company has added a number of advanced features, such as DDR3 memory, Hyper-Threading and the QuickPath Interconnect bus, albeit the latter two are also available on the Nehalem generation of Xeon chips that have proven quite popular with the enterprise set. Also problematic is the fact that the Tukwila is built on a 65 nm process at a time when most of the industry, Intel included, is knee-deep in 45 nm designs and is closing in on 32 nm.
On the plus side, the Itanium is not a general-purpose processor, so its success will come largely from Intel's ability to maintain high margins, not volume shipments. And so far, at least, it has a steady ally in HP, which uses the chips in the high-end NonStop and Integrity lines. And HP is supposed to attend next week's launch party.
Still, Intel has its work cut out for it in the high-end market. Both IBM and Oracle are moving forward with their top-of-the-line models, the Power 7 and Sparc chips, respectively. Oracle is already on the board with an eight-core, 64-thread device, and is said to be close to releasing a 16-core, 128-thread version. And expect to see IBM with eight-core, 32-thread and 16-core, 64-thread additions to the Power 7 family.
In an industry where performance counts for more than either price or power consumption, there's no shame in pulling out all the stops in the pursuit of raw power. Of course, if someone else happens to match your performance more efficiently and at a lower cost, well then, all bets are off.