Waiting on 64 bit

With the news that Intel Corp.'s next-generation Itanium chip will ship to manufacturers a quarter later than expected, federal IT shops will have to wait at least until early next year to get their hands on workstations and servers powered by the new 64-bit microprocessor.

The delay apparently won't be a problem for most agencies, where a wait-and-see approach to the 64-bit systems prevails. But low government interest isn't necessarily indicative of the future prospects for Itanium, formerly known by its development code name, Merced.

Many people in the industry say Intel's new family of 64-bit processors will slash the price of high-performance computing and fuel much of the growth in online markets and services.

"This architecture is going to give customers mainframe performance at an Intel price point," said Mark Thoreson, inside sales manager at the reseller GTSI Corp., Chantilly, Va. "It's also going to give them a lot of options about which operating systems to run on it, from Linux to Windows to Unix."

Intel hopes that those benefits will make the 64-bit chips an even bigger hit than its present products. Indeed, the 32-bit architecture used by the current class of Intel's Pentium II and III Xeon chips, combined with Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT/2000 operating system, has captured a large share of the low-end server market in just a few years. The platform's low cost and abundant off-the-shelf applications have made it a popular choice as an e-mail, Internet and general application server in government and industry.

But criticism of the platform's ability to scale up to handle very large workloads, as well as reliability concerns with the Windows software, have hindered its acceptance where powerful or fault-tolerant computers are required.

Itanium, built on the same 64-bit architecture used by more powerful Unix and mainframe-class computers, is Intel's attempt to move up the food chain.

At NASA, for example, scientists and engineers have relied on expensive Unix workstations to run their sophisticated modeling and scientific software. But the agency is switching some of those systems to lower-cost machines running the open-source Linux operating system, according to Bill Naiman, chief of the workgroup computing office at NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland.

Several software vendors are collaborating on a 64-bit version of the Linux operating system that will run on the Itanium chip — a potentially enticing combination. "A more low-cost, high- performance system running Linux would be attractive," Naiman said.

The list of companies developing software specifically for the 64-bit Intel platform reads like a high-tech Who's Who (see sidebar), but it is the scientific community that is expected to be the biggest early adopter of Itanium-based systems for two reasons: They can use the Itanium's horsepower, and their application environments tend to be simpler, thus easier to port to the new chip.

"Instead of running a potpourri of applications, their applications are more narrowly focused," said Mike Fister, vice president and general manager of Intel's enterprise platform group, which is developing the Itanium chip.

Fister said large database management, data mining and decision support applications will be the popular choices for early adopters of Itanium-based systems, because those applications can benefit the most (see sidebar).

Thoreson said there's an overall need in government for Itanium-based systems. He said many of his customers are bumping against the capacity ceiling of the current generation of Intel-based products, which are used to run many agency World Wide Web servers.

"They're hitting limitations both in speed and in physical space," Thoreson said. "Physical space is at a premium in the government — that's why rack-mount systems are so popular. Itanium will allow them to put a lot of horsepower in a small footprint."

But many federal offices, such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, are nowhere near the capacity limits of their Intel-based servers. About 1,400 commission employees are supported by a network of Compaq Computer Corp. PCs and servers, as well as a few Unix computers running some network utilities. The commission is primarily concerned with upgrading its older Token Ring network to Ethernet.

"No matter how fast the server is, it's going to hit a crunch at the network we have now," said Brian Starkey, a commission IT architect and system engineer.

At least one other federal agency is going to hold off on Itanium-based systems. "You can't have a hiccup in the tax processing system," said an IT official at the Internal Revenue Service who didn't want to be identified. "Sixty-four bit computing is nice, but the software associated with it has to be proven, and I think that's still a few years off."

"The volume in 2001 will be low. The follow-up chip [to Itanium, code-named McKinley] is when you'll see more serious interest in the market," said Steve Josselyn, International Data Corp.'s research director for commercial systems and servers.

The main benefit the Intel and Windows platform has always offered is its low price compared with Unix and proprietary midrange systems such as the IBM Corp. AS/400. The Itanium-based systems are expected to hold the line.

The first Itanium-based computer that Dell Computer Corp. plans to ship next year will be a four-processor server that, after loaded with storage and other extras, will cost about $150,000, or about the same as Dell's current top-of-the line model, according to Bob Van Steenberg, Dell's vice president and general manager of enterprise servers.

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