Itanium’s Final Hurrah: Intel Releases the Itanium 9700 Sequence because the CPU Lastly, Formally Dies

At the moment, Intel launched its final updates to the Itanium household, the Itanium 9700 collection. These new cores, codenamed Kittson, would be the final Itanium processors Intel producers. Kittson is the primary replace to Poulson, which debuted a brand new Itanium structure again in 2012, however it contains no further options or capabilities — simply greater clock speeds in some instances. We’ve aligned the chart from Intel’s CPU database (obtainable at to indicate the upgrades to the higher-end eight-core CPUs, and that is it for the CPU The Register as soon as nicknamed “Itanic.”


The best-end eight-core Itanium CPU will get a 133MHz pace bump, whereas the lower-end eight-core doesn’t even get that — the 9740 is actually the identical chip because the 9540, with the very same clock pace. The quad-core fashions (not proven above) all decide up a further 133MHz of clock pace, however nothing else.

It’s a little bit of a tragic finish to what was as soon as billed as Intel’s most fun, forward-looking design. Again within the late 1990s, Itanium was pitched as a joint challenge between HP and Intel, one that might produce a real successor to the assorted RISC architectures that have been nonetheless in-market at the moment. Intel and HP each spent big quantities of cash and burned an unlimited quantity of improvement time attempting to deliver a brand new sort of microprocessor to market, solely to see Itanium crash and burn whereas x86 boomed. So what went fallacious with Itanium?

A short historical past

Itanium makes use of a computing mannequin known as EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing), which grew out of VLIW (Very Lengthy Instruction Phrase). One in all its major objectives was to maneuver the work of deciding what workloads to execute from the CPU again to the compiler.

To know why this was thought of fascinating, it helps to grasp a little bit of CPU historical past. Within the 1970s and early 1980s, most CPUs have been CISC (Advanced Instruction Set Computing) designs. These designs ran at comparatively low clock pace however may carry out extremely advanced operations in a single clock cycle. On the time, this made sense, since the price of reminiscence really dominated the full price of a pc and was extraordinarily sluggish. The much less reminiscence your code required and the less reminiscence accesses it relied on, the quicker it may execute.

Starting within the 1980s, a brand new sort of structure, RISC (Lowered Instruction Set Computing) started to turn out to be standard. RISC structure decreased CPU design complexity, instituted easier instruction units and CPU designs, however clocked these designs at greater frequencies. Each MIPS and SPARC have their origins in early RISC analysis, for instance, and all fashionable higher-end x86 chips decode x86 operations into RISC-style micro-ops for execution. Debates over whether or not RISC or CISC have been ‘higher’ considerably misses the purpose; CISC made excellent sense at one level in historical past, and RISC-like designs made good sense at one other.

Itanium Sales forecast.

This graph of anticipated Itanium gross sales reveals a part of why the chip was such a catastrophe — it was hyped as an amazing Subsequent Huge Factor and utterly did not take a management place. Image by Wikipedia

EPIC isn’t instantly associated to RISC, however the engineers at HP and Intel have been hoping EPIC could be an enormous leap above the x86 designs of the early and mid-1990s in the identical approach that RISC designs had confirmed themselves superior to the CISC architectures of the 1970s. The objective for EPIC was to push instruction scheduling, department prediction, and parallelism extraction on to the compiler. In idea, this is able to release die house for extra execution models, which may then be used to execute parallel workloads much more shortly. As an alternative of utilizing blocks on the CPU to arrange workloads for out-of-order optimum execution, the compiler would deal with that process. All of the CPU has to do is execute the code it will get handed within the order and method it was advised to execute it.

The one drawback was, it didn’t work nicely in follow. Reminiscence accesses from cache and DRAM are non-deterministic, which meant the compiler can’t predict how lengthy they’ll take — and if the compiler can’t predict how lengthy they’ll take, it’s going to have a tough time scheduling workloads to fill the hole. Itanium was designed to current an enormous array of execution sources that the compiler would intelligently fill, but when the compiler can’t hold them stuffed, it’s simply wasted die house. Itanium was designed to extract and exploit instruction-level parallelism, however compilers of the time struggled to search out sufficient ILP in most workloads to justify the expense and issue of operating code on the platform, and EPIC was so radically completely different from some other structure, there was no method to cleanly port an software. Today, we speak so much about variations between x86 and ARM processors, however x86 and ARM are virtually blood family members to 1 one other in comparison with EPIC and x86.

After all, technical causes aren’t the one cause why Itanium failed. The chips have been costly, tough to fabricate, and years delayed. Intel made a high-profile declaration that Itanium was the way forward for computing and represented its solely 64-bit platform. Then AMD introduced its personal AMD64 instruction set, which prolonged 64-bit computing to the x86 structure. Intel didn’t change course instantly, however it will definitely cross-licensed AMD64. This was a tacit admission that Itanium would by no means come to the desktop. Then, a couple of years in the past, a high-profile court docket case between Oracle and HP put a nail in Itanium’s coffin. At the moment’s chips are the very definition of a contract achievement, with no enhancements, cache tweaks, or different architectural boosts.

Most, I think, will shed no tears for Itanium, significantly given its affect on the event of different, extra promising architectures like PA-RISC and Alpha. However its failure can be a testomony to how a number of the ‘details’ that get handed round CPU trade aren’t so simple as we’d suppose. x86 is usually mentioned in disparaging phrases as an outdated and historic structure, as if nobody had the heart to take it exterior and shoot it. However in actuality, Intel made a number of makes an attempt to do exactly that, from the iAPX 432 (begun in 1975) to the i860 and that i960, to Itanium itself. And regardless of an emphasis on parallelism that sounds superficially promising, given the problem fashionable programmers have had with scaling purposes to make use of a number of threads in an efficient method, Itanium represented one other dead-end department of analysis that by no means managed to ship the real-world efficiency it promised on paper.

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