Intel is hoping to jumpstart the market for IA-64 with a $250 million investment fund, to be announced in Europe tomorrow.
The "Intel 64 fund" will be backed by Compaq, Dell, HP, NEC and SGI together with investors Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, AIG/Sun America, Bank of America, Circuit City, Reuters, Sabre, SmithKline Beecham, Sumitomo Corp and Telmex.
The money will go to independent software vendors (ISVs), particularly those involved in Internet applications, to encourage them to port to, and develop applications for, Intel's forthcoming 64bit Merced chip. Intel needs the support of ISVs to ensure that applications are ready for the chip, but ISVs have so far been shy of investing development dollars in Merced, according to PC vendors.
"It's the chicken and egg thing," said Paul Stow, vice president of servers at Fujitsu.
Customer acceptance of the Merced depends on having a full portfolio of Merced ready applications, he said. At the same time, application vendors are reluctant to commit the development effort necessary to make the leap from IA-32 to IA-64, until they are convinced the market is ready.
"Intel wants to break that circle [with its $250 investment]," he added.
Fujitsu believes that the demands on application vendors, and subsequently customers, with the transition from IA-32 to IA-64 means that volume sales of IA-64 are not expected until the second generation of IA-64 chip, codenamed McKinley.
To date Intel has maintained that McKinley will double the performance of first generation Merced when it becomes available in late 2001. But Intel admitted for the first time last week that to take advantage of this claimed doubling of performance, all Merced applications will have to be recompiled.
Unless the code is recompiled, the applications will not run noticeably faster on the McKinley platform than they will on Merced, PC vendors said last week.
McKinley performance enhancements derive not from a simple increase in clock speed, but from the number of instructions that the chip can deal with at the same time. To take advantage of this technology, which Intel calls epic (explicitly parallel instruction computing), ISVs will have to alter their applications.
PC vendors expect that Merced will aim to run six to eight instructions in parallel and McKinley could double that range, but Intel would not confirm those targets.
"It's like having an eight cylinder car with four sparkplugs removed," said Andy Butler, research director at Gartner Group market researchers. "But once ISVs have made the transition to the IA-64 platform, it shouldn't be too difficult to make the move form Merced to McKinley to Madison [the third generation of IA-64]."
The performance improvement also depends on how well compiler software from Intel or its rivals can work out which instructions can be run in parallel for each application.
"If the code is recompiled and the compiler is smart enough to spot the intricacies of parallelism, then it is possible that McKinley will achieve twice the performance," said Fujitsu's Stow. "To get the best out of the enhanced architecture, [application vendors] will have to recompile," he said. "But it will not involve a massive re-porting, like from IA-32 to IA-64."
The chip vendor played down the implications. "It's not that big a deal: when you deal with big iron, people recompile all the time," said Simon Muchmore, software alliances manager in Intel's server group.
"But it will be tougher [than recompiling between different IA-32 processors], in that the compiler is a bigger piece of software," he conceded.
An Intel executive cautioned that software for the compiling must be very intelligent, but he told PC Week that Intel's substantial development investment would ensure its success.
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