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Processor Watch

Tocking Itanium

November 20, 2012

Author: Bob Wheeler

According to Intel, Itanium costs less and less to develop. That was the clear message behind the company’s Itanium 9500 launch, which also included new information about the next-generation “Kittson” processor. Code-named Poulson, the 32nm Itanium 9500 shares many “common ingredients” with Intel’s high-end Xeon E7 processors. These shared technologies, which helped Intel minimize Poulson’s development cost, include coherent interconnects (QPI), memory interconnects (SMI), and chipsets.

Further reducing development cost, Itanium is on a roughly two-year tock-tock cadence, whereas high-volume x86 processors follow Intel’s familiar and relentless yearly tick-tock cycle. (Note, however, that even the Xeon E7 processors are skipping an architecture generation owing to the longer life cycles of big SMP systems.)

Following its Poulson disclosures at ISSCC in February 2011, Intel left little about the Itanium 9500 to the imagination. New information included clock speeds, pricing, and some performance data. The top-end eight-core Itanium 9560 operates at 2.53GHz, is priced at $4,650, and is rated at 170W TDP. Other versions include a lower-cost eight-CPU variant, a high-performance four-CPU variant, and a 130W TDP four-CPU variant.

Compared with the 65nm quad-core Itanium 9300 (Tukwila), the 9560 has twice as many CPUs, increases clock speed by 40%, increases QPI and SMI speeds by 33%, and sports larger caches. As discussed in our prior coverage, the Poulson CPU represents a comprehensive redesign of the Itanium microarchitecture. The end result of these changes, according to Intel’s benchmarks, is that integer and floating-point performance increase by 2.1x to 2.4x over Tukwila.

The next step in Intel’s common-platform strategy is to unify the packages and sockets of the Xeon E7 and Itanium lines. The 22nm Kittson processor will use the same socket and platform as a future Xeon E7 processor, allowing OEMs to design one system and qualify it with both Itanium and Xeon E7 processors. This approach reduces development costs for OEMs and Intel alike.

In truth, developing a processor as complex as the Itanium 9500 is far from free. But Intel is helping its top customer, HP, extend the life of its mainframe operating systems. HP-UX, NonStop, and OpenVMS still provide reliability, availability, and serviceability (RAS) features not found in x86 operating environments. Kittson should ensure Itanium is viable for another five years, giving ESXi, Linux, and Windows Server time to close the mission-critical-feature gap.