Big Iron: Intel Inside, and free of RISC?

At an editors’ meet in Bangalore, a rather light comment on Sun set Intel
CEO Craig Barrett off about the “one company that doesn’t get it”.
It’s not difficult to see why: Sun is in the way, as Intel tries to take over
big iron with its Itanium.

Intel’s latest processor, co-developed with HP, could change the server
market. A market where “Intel server” means a cheap, low-end PC
server. Where high power has meant RISC, and a few top-end mainframes from
Compaq, Sun, IBM, HP, et al.

Intel is non-existent here. (Barrett points out, though, that multi-way IA32
servers have a chunk of the $10k-plus server market). Now, Itanium takes Intel
into RISC territory. But it’s the antithesis of RISC–it uses VLIW, very long
instruction words. It’s the first non-RISC processor to get into big iron
space. Thus, Intel’s “macroprocessing” campaign.

Intel rules the desktop and PC server. Now, it’s eyeing the big servers–sans
RISC. What does IA64 mean for the server world? One view would be to draw an
analogy with Microsoft, which used its desktop dominance to make inroads into
the enterprise back-end. But Intel has more friends…

HP, as IA64 co-developer, was the first out with Itanium servers. It will
make a transition over four years from its PA-RISC to IA64.

COMPAQ’s Alpha will gradually bow out too, the technology transferred to
Intel, which will “absorb the people and expertise”, according to

SGI started its gradual transition from its MIPS RISC processor to IA32 with
its low-end workstations two years ago. The MIPS, too, will likely dissolve into
the Itanium. Another RISC down.

That leaves two big names: Sun and IBM.

SUN is firmly with its SPARC roadmap, the one big, significant force in RISC.
Five years down, it could be the only RISC player.

IBM is the only one, I believe, with a real choice ahead. Its Power chips
power its RS 6000 and AS/400s, and it has its S/390 big iron. It also
“supports the Itanium”. Big Blue’s future systems decisions could
help decide the degree of Itanium’s dominance.

This is not about RISC vs CISC. It’s about Intel, which runs the desktop.
Will all servers also carry an ‘Intel Inside’ logo a few years from now?

Not if Sun can help it. And I would imagine that IBM, too, would be keen to
keep its options alive. There’s a lot to be said for competition.

Yet, Intel has clearly made a grand move with the Itanium, carrying HP and
Compaq along. And it’s clearly headed for the status of processor powerhouse–across
the systems spectrum.

Prasanto Kumar Ray

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