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The Itanium in Perspective

Let’s summarize. The Itanium is a good processor as it is. That is, from the engineering point of view. Well, it just couldn’t have been the other way - two big corporations invested by different estimates from $9 to 15 billion and numerous working hours into developing this architecture. They couldn’t afford not reaching the planned result. The Itanium is a performance leader among all RISC processors today. The EPIC architecture has grown mature and has speeds no worse than competitors: the current CPU, the Itanium 2, is a leader in SPEC_fp 2000 performance (as I have already mentioned above).

In other words, this is a worthy product - but there has been a kind of slip in the marketing front. The market was ready for the Itanium to be an expensive processor, but the software side drags this platform down. Of course, the situation is changing steadily - Intel and Hewlett-Packard are working with software developers, supply sample systems on the first demand to any interested individual or organization. The market of customers interested in Itanium systems is growing. On the other hand, this market is still much smaller than any other market sector. For example, IDC estimates Itanium sales volumes like $1 billion for the Q3 of the last year. Considering that the entire server market is noticeably larger (something like $28 billion), you may form your opinion about the market share of this server platform.

So there are numerous side factors that may affect the Itanium’s perspectives in the market, notwithstanding its brilliant speed characteristics. Of course, both corporations have put a lot of effort into the promotion of the new platform – ad materials, compilers, evaluation systems which are generously (and practically for free) distributed among the potential customers – but there are objective reasons that hinder the development of this platform.

First of all, the Itanium is an expensive processor. Its die size is enormous and the chip yield is smaller because of that. There are fewer dies manufactured from a wafer and all this results in high production cost of this processor. Although Intel tries to improve the situation by issuing cheaper Itaniums on the Deerfield core (1GHz, 1.5MB L3 cache) priced at about $800 (and with support of 2-way configurations only), the performance of such “value” solutions is far from perfect. Moreover, the price of the processor doesn’t equal the price of the whole platform, and this latter price is high, even for its market (servers, workstations and so on).

This problem is the smallest of all, though, as all servers and server processors are expensive as they go. The second and bigger problem is software. Today, the list of software for the Itanium platform is much shorter than that of programs for the x86 system. The development of special software versions costs money. In case of x86 systems this cost is distributed among numerous clients and the final price of x86 software is rather low (compared to versions for other architectures).  
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