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Stephen Shankland

Staff Writer, CNET

Intel will on Tuesday offer a further glimpse into the future of its Itanium processor family, shining the spotlight on a new model code-named Poulson, CNET has learned.

Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s former chief technology officer and now one of two chiefs of the company’s Digital Enterprise Group, is expected to discuss Poulson briefly at Intel’s Developer Forum in San Francisco, sources familiar with the situation said.

Poulson is scheduled to succeed Tukwila, an Itanium processor due in 2007 that had previously been code-named Tanglewood. Intel declined to comment for this story.

Though Intel isn’t expected to offer many details, revealing the code name sends a significant message: Intel still has long-term plans for Itanium, despite the chip’s troubles and the relative popularity of the company’s lower-end Xeon products.

Intel has had difficulty getting Itanium to fulfill initial expectations by becoming as widespread in the server market as the Pentium is today among desktop computers. One of the major sticking points has been that software written for x86 chips such as Pentium runs only slowly and awkwardly on Itanium.

Intel missed its Itanium shipment goal of 200,000 in 2004. And of the four major server sellers–IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell and Sun Microsystems, which together generated 80 percent of the $49.5 billion in 2004 server sales–only HP is a strong supporter. That’s not a surprise, since HP co-developed the chip design and only in December transferred its last Itanium designers to Intel.

But for all the difficulties, Intel isn’t throwing in the towel.

One major change will come with the Tukwila generation of chips. At that point, for the first time, Xeon and Itanium chips will have the same electronic interface, making it easier to design servers that support either processor. And Intel promises that in 2007, Itanium and Xeon systems will cost the same, but Itaniums will have twice the performance.

And several second-tier server makers still have their own Itanium

server designs, including Fujitsu, Silicon Graphics, Hitachi, NEC and Unisys.

The current Itanium processor is code-named Madison. A new version code-named Montecito is expected to boost performance significantly upon arrival at the end of 2005.

Montecito has dual processing engines, or cores, and each core is able to process two simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads. Madison has a single core that executes a single thread.

Tukwila take 2

Intel has been mum about most Tukwila details but has said it will arrive in 2007 and will have four cores. But it appears other elements of the chip have been changing to better compete against IBM’s Power family of processors. A IBM Power5 system trounced an HP Itanium machine and all other rivals in a recent server speed test.

Tukwila appears to have fewer cores, which will execute individual operations more quickly, rather than multiple cores that can handle more jobs simultaneously but not as fast, Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said based on a discussion last week with Rich Marcello, who leads HP’s high-end server group.

“Tukwila has been redefined to have fatter cores…Intel is refocusing Tukwila on being very explicitly a competitor with Power,” Haff said. “With Itanium now being very explicitly designed for the high-end back-end jobs, HP clearly thinks it makes sense to have fatter cores rather than maximum threading.”

In recent years, Intel reoriented Itanium for higher-end servers, as opposed to the entire server market, using RISC, or reduced instruction set computing, processors. Today’s mainstream RISC chips are Power from IBM and Sparc from Sun and Fujitsu.

IBM’s Power5 has dual cores, each able to execute two threads.

Sun is working on a processor code-named Niagara, due in 2006 though being previewed this year. It has eight cores, each able to execute four instruction threads. That makes it more similar to the earlier Tukwila version, which began with four cores but which a source familiar with Intel’s plans said eventually would reach 16 cores.

Intel declined to comment on whether it was revamping Tukwila. But the chipmaker has made similar moves in the past. Intel shifted Montecito to today’s design in 2003, substituting it for an earlier model so the company could release a dual-core Itanium sooner.