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Intel's Two-Pronged Evolution

By Charles King
Nov 24, 2012 5:00 AM PT

It's hard to think of an IT vendor with a stronger leadership position than Intel, but the company is having trouble shaking off the perception that it is on the ropes or headed for disaster in some of its core markets.

Intel's Two-Pronged Evolution

On one hand, Intel's mission-critical Itanium platform suffered when Oracle and HP publicly butted heads in an altercation that ended up in court. On the other, the use of graphics processors in high-performance computing and supercomputing applications has caused some to doubt Intel's future in those markets.

Both of these issues are reflected in the company's new Itanium 9500 and Xeon Phi announcements, though the light each casts on Intel is significantly different.

Partner Problems

Regarding Itanium, Intel was stuck between the rock and hard place of two significant partners -- HP and Oracle -- when the latter claimed the platform was headed toward demise. Both HP -- by far, the largest producer of IA-64 systems -- and Intel denied this vociferously. In fact, Oracle's claims contradicted numerous Itanium roadmaps and publicly stated strategies.

However, Oracle refused to back down and said it would not develop future versions of its core database products for the platform. HP fought back, noting an agreement Oracle signed after hiring its former CEO, Mark Hurd, and in August the judge overseeing the case issued a ruling supporting HP. Though Oracle said it will appeal, it also resumed Itanium development and support.

So where do things stand today? Along with providing a significant performance boost over previous-generation processors -- a point that will please loyal IA-64 customers and OEMs -- Intel's new Itanium 9500 is also likely to bolster HP's claims against Oracle and the case for the platform's health and well-being. That isn't just because of the Itanium 9500's capabilities, which are formidable, but also due to Intel's new Modular Development Model, which aims to create common technologies for both the Itanium and Xeon E7 families.

That will certainly add to the mission-critical capabilities of Xeon E7 and it should also take a significant bite out of the cost of developing future Itanium solutions. In the end, not only does Intel's Itanium 9500 deliver the goods for today's enterprises; it also represents a significant advance in Itanium's long term prospects.

The High End

A completely different corner of the IT market -- HPC and supercomputing -- is at the heart of Intel's new Xeon Phi coprocessors. The latest top-ranked system on the list, Titan, at the DOE's Oak Ridge Laboratory, is based on AMD Opteron CPUs and NVIDIA GPUs. It certainly is the foremost event in the trend of using GPUs for parallel processing chores, but other systems using similar technologies are also cropping up.

A curious thing about supercomputing is that while these systems deliver eye-popping performance and bragging rights for owners and vendors, their immediate effect on mainstream computing is less significant. Sure, such technologies eventually find their way into commercial systems, but those are typically not high-margin products for OEMs and many customers -- particularly those in the public sector, such as universities -- aren't exactly rolling in dough.

In fact, maximally leveraging existing resources, including the knowledge and training of programmers, technicians and managers, is crucial for keeping these facilities up, running and solvent.

That's a key point related to the Xeon Phi coprocessors, the first commercial iteration of Intel's longstanding MIC development effort. Not only do the new Xeon Phi solutions deliver impressive parallel processing capabilities, they do so in a notably efficient power envelope.

Power Saver

The Intel Xeon/Phi-based Beacon supercomputer at the University of Tennessee is the most energy-efficient system on the latest list. More importantly, however, Xeon Phi supports programming models and tools that are common in Intel Xeon-based HPC and supercomputing systems.

That will be welcome news to the owners of high-end Xeon-based systems, which constitute more than 75 percent of the current Top500.list, but the effect should also ripple downstream into the commercial HPC and workstation markets, benefiting end users, their vendors and developers.

Overall, Intel's new Itanium 9500 and Xeon Phi coprocessors are impressive, evolutionary steps for the company and myriad current customers. However, the new processors also cast considerable light on how Intel will succeed in developing and delivering innovative solutions for core existing and emerging new markets.

Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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