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NEC chief leaves after highlighting EPIC difficulties

An executive at NEC in America has left the company just two weeks after he made controversial statements about the difficulties of programming Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor family.

Leonard Tsai, former chief technologist at NEC Solutions, said at a conference in mid-July that it would take years for engineers to learn the EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) instruction set used in the Itanium chips. A thorough understanding of EPIC is key to making the most of the 64-bit chip's performance by allowing system programmers to decide in advance how the chip should optimise the machine instructions that make up a computer program.

"I believe that Itanium has its place, but not as the overall panacea for 64-bit computing," Tsai wrote in an e-mail message.

During the Platform Conference in July, in San Jose, USA, Tsai said he expected it to take many years for Itanium to take off due to the new EPIC instruction set. He said users were more familiar with the RISC (reduced instruction set computing) architectures used by Sun, IBM and HP. "It is easier to tune RISC-based servers for best performance. It will take a massive effort to educate enough people about EPIC and the Itanium processors to make them successful," Tsai said. Tsai claimed Intel had "bullied" NEC into picking Itanium for its servers and suggested HP, as co-designer of EPIC, received preferential treatment from Intel.

In an e-mail message Tsai said he believed the only place for 64-bit Intel chips was in high-end computing: "NEC's approach to Itanium is the right way," he wrote, saying it offered a viable means to replace old mainframe technology. Tsai said building two-processor Itanium systems or single-processor workstations did not make any sense.

These claims were refuted by Intel. "[NEC's] product lines are inconsistent with what [Tsai] talks about," said Mike Fister, senior vice-president and general manager of Intel's enterprise platforms group, during an interview at the Intel Developer Forum.

However Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with consulting company Insight 64 said Tsai's remarks were accurate in that parts of the Itanium architecture are very complex. But he added that the complexity would affect only a small class of engineers.

"There is a fair amount of complexity in the Itanium software model," Brookwood said. "If somebody wants to program the machines at the hardware level, it takes a lot of work." But he said programmers who tend to work at this level of detail are mainly those who create specific operating system code and people who write compilers that translate languages like FORTRAN or C into Itanium instructions. "The number of people who need to understand it at that level is measured in the high tens or low hundreds in the world."

Intel has positioned Itanium as its high-end processor for 64-bit computing, which is currently dominated by IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. Intel released the second-generation Itanium 2 processor earlier this year, and NEC uses it in a high-end 32-processor server. After more than ten years of development efforts between Intel and Hewlett-Packard, the Itanium chip has captured a small chunk of the server market and is not expected to generate large amounts of revenue for either company for several years, according to analysts.

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