The Wintel (define) juggernaut has conquered the desktop and 32-bit servers, but it may face its greatest challenge in "big iron."
Preparations are being finalized for the April 24 release of Microsoft Windows Server 2003. The software and corresponding tools are expected to be the Redmond, Wash.-based firm's most significant release, not because it is aiming to become more secure, but because it includes support for supercomputers, clusters and mainframes -- a virtually new space for Microsoft.
Enter Intel, which has been developing its Xeon and Itanium 2 family of processors to perform well on 64-bit systems. And out of the two companies, it seems that the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant has more to gain or lose from the success of Windows 2003.
In a briefing Friday, Intel Itanium Processor Family Product Line Manager Mike Graf told internetnews.com that the company is already shoring up its partners and vendors to help spread its next-generation chips.
"Intel has been doing multi-processor servers in the last eight years and with Intel and Window-based servers, we are really playing up to the high end," Graf said.
Case in point: Windows 2003 will be the first formal release of the operating system supporting Itanium's product family, meaning no more 'limited editions' will be required for Itanium support under Windows.
The relationship between Microsoft and Intel is by no means exclusive. Windows runs on several non-IA microprocessors, and there are other operating systems, such as Linux, that run on Intel chips. But Intel says because of its longstanding relationship with Microsoft, they really feel there is yet another opportunity to show how well they work together migrating customers from RISC-based to Intel architecture-based systems.
"We look at the enterprise and we don't think you can go with a one-size-fits-all approach," Graf said. "The RISC guys are running out of room to operate. If before you went with Sun, you only had one vendor to choose from. The market is so diverse however, that we think there is a need for a segmented product line and that customers are not interested in a one-trick pony."
For this year, Intel is designating its fastest Xeon multi-processor code-named "Gallatin" and its new Xeon dual processor with 1MB cache code-named "Nocona" as prime candidates for Windows Server 2003 four editions: Web, Standard, Enterprise and Datacenter. Next year, Intel says it will suggest its Xeon "Potomac" and new chipsets for all server sizes with PCI-Express support.
In the Itanium family, the No. 1 chipmaker is highlighting its Madison "Deerfield" series in 3,6 and 9MB configurations in the next two years and its dual core Montecito in 2005.
But questions still remain about Itanium's viability since its introduction last year. While Intel refuses to say how well any of its chips sell, Gartner Research analyst John Enck says Itanium is safe for high-performance computer clusters now and should be ready for mainstream database use on all operating systems by year-end.
"Interest in Intel's Itanium Processor Family (IPF) has been building since the release of Itanium 2 in late 2002," Enck said. "Although 2003 may not be the 'year of Itanium,' it is a year in which IPF takes a significant step forward in its maturity."
Enck says the other indicator that Itanium is doing well is the number of companies developing software support for the 64-bit processor. Intel claims there are now more than 300 software products for Itanium with software vendors citing several cases of customer's using the chips.
"Windows and Linux users must remain cautious about deployment of 32-bit software under IPF because of performance," Enck said "32-bit Windows and Linux applications will continue to enjoy better price/performance on IA-32 systems."
Currently, Intel is partnering with Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell Computer, SGI, NEC, and Fujitsu-Siemens.
In concert with the Windows Server 2003 launch, Intel said it will release version 7.0 of its Intel VTune Performance Analyzer and version 2.0 or its Intel VTune Enterprise Analyzer, .NET Edition. The developer's tools identify "hot spots" in source code and supports Windows command line interface for batch processing.
The company says it has also partnered with Microsoft to optimize SQL Server 2000 for 64-bit Itanium 2-based platforms.