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McKinley wins race but could be hobbled

Intel has presented its Itanium processor as a key part of the company's future, at the Intel Developers Forum (IDF).

Mike Fister, senior vice-president and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group, opened the company's flagship conference with a look at the 64-bit Itanium processor and how it compared with chips from Sun Microsystems.

To bolster its case using a benchmark for financial services software, Intel put its second-generation Itanium chip, code-named McKinley, up against a Sun UltraSPARC II. The example was taken from an actual financial services company that migrated to the McKinley server platform, Fister said.

Not surprisingly, the 1GHz McKinley chip - not due to appear in servers until mid-2002 - beat the 400MHz Sun chip with 20 times the performance.

Users, however, may be less than impressed because the Sun chip used in the benchmark is quickly heading toward the end of its life. Today, Sun is selling 900MHz chips using its UltraSPARC III architecture across much of its product line. In addition, the Sun Enterprise 450 server used in the benchmark is at the low end of Sun's product line and is not the typical system pitched by Sun at financial services customers. The product is now being phased out as the 900MHz server platform takes its place, a Sun spokeswoman said.

To get the best performance out of Intel's McKinley chip, companies will need to recompile many applications because of major differences between the new chip and Intel's 32-bit processors. Sun's 32-bit and 64-bit chips are compatible, so applications do not have to be recompiled to run on the latest version.

"You are comparing an old system and old implementation against a new system and new implementation," said Dean McCarron, an analyst at Mercury Research. "I am sure this was one of the better examples that Intel found in its customer base."

Although the conditions for the benchmark may have been tilted in Intel's favour, McCarron said the test helped shed light on Intel's performance with high-end software.

"I think it is a relevant comparison in terms of giving someone context as to where McKinley is," he said.

Fister also hinted that Deerfield, the follow-on to McKinley, will run at close to 70 watts. This low level of power consumption should help Intel compete in the two-processor server space.

In addition, Intel showed its 870 chipset due out at mid-year for two-processor and four-processor McKinley servers. A number of large server makers are expected to use the chipset in their McKinley products.

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