As a result, Intel has to react to the sudden danger. The company has switched from the open dislike of the 64-bit processor idea to a more discreet stance like “if the market demands…” And the market demands as over 10 thousand systems on Opterons sold in the Q3 against 5 thousand on the Itanium. Of course, Itanium systems are ahead in the monetary estimation and in the number of processors: these 5000 systems contain nearly 100,000 processors, while the sales results differ by a factor of two. Nevertheless, this is a disturbing signal for Intel – considering that the Opteron has started its market life not so long ago.
Actually, the Opteron poses a threat to the Itanium platform, rather than to Intel’s supremacy in the server market. Both above-mentioned numbers seem negligible against the following number: 1.18 million systems on Xeon CPUs (that is, about 2.25 million processors) were shipped in the Q3 of 2003.
There are several ways for Intel to react to AMD’s moves. They will certainly have to implement 64-bit extensions in the Xeon sooner or later. Making it too late would mean giving some time advantage to AMD – that’s unacceptable. Thus, they have to do it now (or in the near future). There are three possible variants: introducing an AMD64-compatible architecture or an IA64-compatible architecture (in commands) or a completely new, architecture not compatible with anything.
The first variant is less probable, although appeals to software developers (they don’t have to split their products into versions for different platforms). This is mostly a political decision – Intel has never used AMD solutions. This rule is unlikely to be broken just for a momentary profit.
The second variant is good for the Itanium architecture, but unlikely for technical reasons. The concepts and micro-architectures of the Itanium and Xeon differ too much to create a common instruction set for them. Even if the engineers manage to build an IA64-compatible Xeon, the processor would be too slow.
The third variant means creation and support of one more platform. Intel has resources for doing this, but this would also mean that the Itanium would never become a main platform. It will remain a platform for expensive servers and workstations in its relatively narrow niche.
Besides that, additional effort is necessary to keep the Itanium the performance leader. This is necessary for positioning this processor as a high-end solution. In fact, the competition between the Xeon and Opteron will lead to a higher performance delivered by both processors (as x86 systems at large have grown in strength and overcame previously-unreachable RISC systems). As a result, the Itanium must have some noticeable performance gap behind to enjoy demand while being expensive.