Mon, 11 Jun 2001

The 64-bit Itanium processor finally arrives

Text and photo by Zatni Arbi

SINGAPORE (JP): We may not really have been waiting for it in a state of suspense because, deep down, we know it is not really meant for our desk. Intel and Hewlett-Packard joined forces to develop the Itanium processor and now it is ready to go.

HP invited a group of IT journalists and analysts from the Asia-Pacific region to Singapore at the end of May to witness the launch of their processor and the first servers to run on it.

These two technology leaders have been working on this processor for many years. Initially code-named "Merced", it was officially christened as "Itanium" during the Microprocessor Forum in Silicon Valley in the fall of 1999.

What is the difference between this processor and the Pentiums that we have been using on our desktop and notebook computers? The older processors are still 32-bit processors, which means that they handle instructions in a 32-bit chunk at a time. That is the reason they are called IA-32, where IA stands for "Intel Architecture".

As 64-bit processors (IA-64), the new Itanium processors are capable of tackling twice as many instructions as the IA-32 per cycle.

While the latest generation of the Pentium 4 processor runs at a speed of 1.7 GH, the two processors launched by HP in Singapore run at 733 MHz and 800 MHz. However, do not let these figures mislead you. Because of the larger data processing capability, bigger cache memory-up to 4 MB as opposed to Pentium Xeon's 2 MB, and the Itanium's three levels of cache instead of two-plus two floating point units that will handle mathematical calculations, comparing their clock speeds to the speed of the Pentiums is to a large extent irrelevant.

Besides, as time passes, we can naturally expect the two companies to introduce faster and faster Itanium processors.

The Itanium processors are clearly not intended for running Microsoft Office applications or browsing the Internet, although you may do so if you have stash of cash to burn. These processors are meant for use in servers that will compete with the ones from the so-called big iron server vendors such as Sun Microsystems- which is one of the recognized leaders in the server industry. On mid-range and high-end servers, these processors will be used to run applications such as huge databases, data mining and security (there are certain features built in this processor that makes it an ideal "brain" for security applications).

The processor is also meant for use in high-end workstations that run computer-aided engineering and design as well as scientific applications. Thus, I really doubt whether my favorite 3-D Pinball will run on it.

At the launching ceremony, HP previewed a working unit of its rx4610 Itanium server, which contained four processors running at 800 MHz. Its higher end server at the moment is the rx9610, which can be fitted with up to 16 Itanium processors. Being 64-bit computers, these servers can handle a whopping amount of data up to 16 terabytes.

Understandably, in addition to making these servers available to its customers, HP also has to provide services that include consulting services, new system start-up services to help customers to migrate to Itanium, as well as education services.

HP's contribution in the making of this processor has been more than just being a co-developer. HP actually began work on the new, 64-bit design philosophy in December 1988, the cooperation with Intel came later. The company was thus responsible for the design philosophy called "Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing", or EPIC, which is one of the main characteristics of this new processor family, enabling it to process more instructions at a time as opposed to the Complex Instruction Set Computing (CISC) and Reduced Set of Instructions Computing (RISC).

Operating Systems

One logical question is what operating system will people run on these new machines?

According to Intel and HP, there will be 64-bit Linux from Caldera, Suse, Red Hat and others, HP-UX 11i v1.5 from HP, AIX-5L from IBM, and Windows from Microsoft. Microsoft will provide the 64-bit Edition of Windows for the workstation, and the 64-bit Advanced Server Limited Edition for the servers.

Applications may not be available right away in hordes from vendors, but prototypes of these machines have been around for one and a half years so that they have already been appearing. Currently, a number of independent software vendors (ISVs) including Singapore-based AU-System, BroadVision, NewsPage, POXEN, SYSTEK Information Technology, Sysware, TIBCO and WebGain have begun developing their version of applications for the Itanium platform. They were all present at the launch event.

Besides, as the new processor still retains binary compatibility with IA-32, it remains able to run existing 32-bit applications. Backward capability -- the ability to run older applications -- has always been a key requirement for enterprises interested in moving to a newer platform, as they do not want all-out application migration that may disrupt their business operations.

HP-UX is HP's version of the UNIX operating system that it has been using on its popular PA RISC servers. Being a co-designer of the Itanium, HP has optimized its HP-UX version for Itanium in such a way that all existing applications for the RISC servers can run on the new servers without any need for recompilation.

Furthermore, as the Itanium Processor Family (IPF) platform is still new, HP also introduced its Early Adopter and Developer Program during the same event to help accelerate the development of applications for this platform. Application developers can take advantage of this company's growing number of Partner Technology Access Center sites around the world where they can get certification and assistance for transition.

Incidentally, would you like to know the price range of HP's Itanium-based servers and workstations? The company has not yet finalized the pricing, and all they were able to share with journalists and analysts who gathered at the launch was that the workstations would cost between US$7,500 and $15,000, midrange servers in the excess of $20,000 and the high-end servers in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range. At these price ranges, they are certainly not meant to run Pinball or Tetris. (