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Analysis: Montecito unlikely to find a home in Xserve

By all early accounts, especially Intel’s, the dual-core Itanium 2 chip for high-end servers that Intel unveiled last week looks to be an excellent performer with an outstanding work-to-watt ratio.

Just don’t look for it in Apple’s Xserve when that server product line makes the switch from the PowerPC to Intel-supplied processors.

That information doesn’t come from Apple, which is tight-lipped as ever about future product developments. Nor is it a reflection on the Itanium 2 line—code-named “Montecito”—which starts with the $749 1.4GHz 9015 featuring 12MB of L3 tertiary cache and tops out with the $3,692 1.6GHz 9050 and its 24MB of tertiary cache. Fabbed using a 90-nanometer process, Intel’s dual-core server chips rated at 104 watts, or 52 watts per core, down quite a bit from the 75 watts the remaining single-core Itanium 2 draws.

Alas, Apple has a lot more to consider than performance numbers. The IT departments and chief information officers that decide which servers to buy in no way resemble the general public—hype means nothing weighed against the possibility of late nights and colossal support headaches implementing the latest, greatest, or simply something different. Not that Itanium servers are problematic, but the inertial don’t-fix-it-if-it ain’t- broke IT view works against latecomers.

Announced in 1994 by Intel and HP, Itanium didn’t make it to market until 2001. In the mean time, IT was settling on other solutions and the Itanium platform has simply never gained a whole lot of traction. IBM’s servers featuring the Power5 chip, a relative of the PowerPC G5 in Apple’s Xserve G5 boxes, have consistently outsold Itanium-based severs by a wide margin. For that matter, Sun’s UltraSparc-based servers and even Itanium co-partner HP’s PA-RISC have outsold it. And by far the best selling sever CPU in the world is Intel’s own Xeon. AMD’s Opterons represent yet more competition.

Estimated Worldwide Server Shipment Shares

2005 Q1, 2006
x86 92.6% 93.3%
RISC 6.9% 6.2%
Itanium 0.4% 0.4%
Other 0.1% 0.1%

Source: Gartner Dataquest Research

Also working against the Itanium is that its RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture is not X86-compatible like the Xeon or Opteron’s. This means Apple would need to port, recompile, and maintain OS X Server for yet another processor family. Of course, the company could dump the PowerPC altogether and devote those resources to the Itanium, but then it could just as easily solidify entirely on the x86 platform to reduce maintenance costs.

“At first glance, it would appear that [Intel’s] Xeon has more applicability than Itanium to the workloads where Apple has been selling its servers.,” said Jeffrey J. Hewitt, research director for server markets at Gartner Dataquest Research. “I do not expect to see Itanium-based Apple servers until and unless Apple tests them with its code and sees performance advantages over Xeon in environments that it chooses to target.”

A possible outcome would be that if Apple wants to say goodbye to the Power5 processor in the short run (which is not at all a necessary move), it will be in favor of the Xeon which offers Power5-like performance without the maintenance of another version of the operating system. That said, Apple’s tiny footprint in the server industry and Steve Job’s temperament might just warrant a bold stroke.

[ Jon L. Jacobi is a widely published freelance computer journalist who lives and works the Bay Area. ]

EDITOR’S NOTE: Changed reference to the Power5 chip to clarify its relationship to the PowerPC G5 in Apple’s Xserve.

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