March 3, 2000 11:45 AM PST

Sun, Intel square off over Itanium support

Sun Microsystems and Intel are in a high-stakes game of chicken in a debate about which company needs the other more in the e-commerce world.

Two weeks ago, Intel said it was rapidly winding down efforts to bring Sun's Solaris operating system to Intel's upcoming flagship Itanium chip. Sun, said Intel, wasn't doing enough to encourage software companies to rework their programs for the effort.

This week, Sun reaffirmed its commitment to bring Solaris to Itanium and its successors in the 64-bit family, with or without help from Intel. However, doubts linger on how deep this commitment will go and what the final result will be.

"Sun would like to hedge their bets, (although) Sun would rather remain independent and prove that they don't need Intel," said Robert Francis Group analyst Cal Braunstein.

Whether Sun and Intel are allies or enemies will determine a crucial part of the Internet landscape of the future. If the companies are allies, then Sun would get another new high-performance chip to bolster its market position and spread its software philosophy. Intel would get to sell systems using one of the most popular operating systems for Internet operations.

But if the companies separate, Sun is left with all its eggs in one basket, because all its UltraSparc chips are made by a single company, Texas Instruments (TI). It would be left competing more strongly with Intel, whose Itanium chips likely will cost less than UltraSparcs.

That's too risky a strategy even for Sun, Braunstein said. "If TI cannot keep up with the semiconductor plants needed to keep pace with what IBM and Intel are doing, that leaves Sun stranded."

If TI falters, the logical decision for Sun would be to throw in the towel on UltraSparc and go with Intel rather than seek help from IBM, which makes not only competing chips but competing servers, he said.

A split also hands Intel some significant disadvantages. Namely, the disappearance of a respected operating system such as Solaris doesn't speak well for the somewhat anemic momentum of Itanium. Computer manufacturers and customers have largely said that they aren't even considering significant use of Itanium servers until the next generation of the chip emerges at the end of 2001.

Competing in 64-bit market
Itanium is Intel's first foray into the realm of more powerful 64-bit chips, which allow computers to store huge databases entirely in memory and which enable faster mathematical calculations. Intel hopes Itanium and the later members of the "IA-64" family will carry it into high-end computers that currently use chips from IBM, Sun, Compaq, SGI or Hewlett-Packard.

Analysts expect the Itanium chip, due to arrive in computers later this year, to be useful as a test vehicle. However, most have higher expectations for Itanium's successor, code-named McKinley, which will offer higher performance and will arrive in late 2001 when companies have had more time to remove bugs from the new IA-64 chip family.

The number of operating systems available on Itanium is dropping. Compaq canceled its program to bring Tru64 Unix to Itanium. SGI decided to use Linux for the new chip. And IBM, Sequent and the Santa Cruz Operation decided to merge their versions into a single package called Monterey-64.

Solaris is the "only operating system that can give them what they need"--a computer for e-commerce that's proven and will stay up and running, argues Aisling MacRunnels, manager of the Solaris partner office. While Solaris may be somewhat more mature than Intel's favorites, bringing an OS to Itanium by all accounts requires major reworking, and Solaris is no exception.

Despite such strong criticisms of Intel's strategy, Sun doesn't want to break things off.

Fully committed?
"Sun is fully committed to working with Intel to ensure the success of our joint venture," Anil Gadre, general manager of Sun's Solaris program, said in a statement. Sun lined up support from NCR and Fujitsu, both of whom plan to use Solaris in upcoming Itanium computers.

But Intel, which wasn't included in the news release, isn't buying it. "We're saying the same thing same thing we said" in February when Intel publicly disparaged Sun's Itanium efforts, said Intel spokesman Bill Kircos.

One thing the companies agree on is that current contracts require Intel to help only with Itanium, the first generation of the IA-64 family, and not with the McKinley chip that's expected to be more popular for actual use instead of just testing.

Though Sun would like to get Intel's cooperation, it isn't necessary, MacRunnels said.

"We believe we can do it CNET's Linux Center independent of the situation. However, we are working hard to get their support," she said.

For leverage, Sun mentions several computer companies that plan on selling computers with Solaris and Itanium chips: Siemens, Fujitsu, NCR, Toshiba, Unisys and Amdahl.

Intel counters that these companies--called original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs--were well aware of Intel's unhappiness with Sun, which extends back to the summer of 1999. "The OEMs are and were well aware of our plans before the February news exposure," Kircos said.

One awkwardness in the debate stems from Sun's internal organization. The company is split into several independent business units, each of which fend for themselves in terms of profit and loss. That means that while the software group responsible for Solaris is trying to round up for support for Itanium, the microelectronics group that sells UltraSparc chips is disparaging Itanium.

Intel bridles at Sun's criticisms of Itanium, a chip that was known for years by the Merced code name. "Itanium will meet or exceed Sparc performance," Kircos said.

Responding to Intel's criticism that Sun hasn't done enough to round up support from outside software companies, Sun points out the difficulties of advocating a chip that has been delayed.

"When we signed the porting agreement with Intel (to bring Solaris to Itanium), we initiated a very aggressive program for getting (software companies) to port and support Solaris on Merced. The slips in the Merced schedule have made it very difficult for us to get a strong foothold there," MacRunnels said. "There's a lot of wait-and-see when it comes to supporting Merced as anything more than a development platform."

But Sun probably shouldn't be pointing fingers. The current UltraSparc II was due to be replaced by the UltraSparc III "Cheetah" in late 1999, according to Sun's chip road map. Though the first UltrasSparc IIIs are late, Sun will roughly keep up on schedule of speeds, saying the new chip will be available at 750 MHz.

See more CNET content tagged:
Intel Itanium, Intel IA-64, Sun Solaris, Sun UltraSPARC, Sun Microsystems Inc.

 

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