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Intel gets quiet about the competition

A little too quiet

Intel's release this week of a 64-bit Xeon server processor made one thing clear - AMD has its rival in a real tizzy.

As an Intel spinmeister was describing the new Nocona processor, we couldn't help but think of the salute John Kerry used at the Democratic convention. "I'm reporting for duty," he said. The scripted scene bordered on camp and did little to inspire even fervent supporters. How tired. How shallow. How not creative.

Intel's staffer used much of the same methodology during our chat. "I think the theme is the overall platform elements," he told us. Don't look at just the 64-bit extensions slapped on the old 32-bit Xeon. Focus on the DDR2 support, new 800MHz bus and PCI Express. "We're not a follower, we're a leader" was the clear message. "We're reporting for duty."

To its credit, Intel rarely has to defend itself against AMD. The "little chip vendor" has been allowed to have its niche, rivaling Intel on price and performance but has not done a lot to disrupt Intel's revenue machine. Then with Opteron and Athlon64, the game changed.

Now we hear Intel hyping "the complete platform" and reminding anyone who will listen that Intel processors sit in about 8 of every 10 servers sold. "If you look at the competitors' numbers and see they ship less products, a lot of the reason for that is the work we have done on the platform level not just on the CPU," Intel said. Please ignore the dancing clown introducing himself to our customers.

Intel's decision to keep quiet about the 64-bitness of its new processors has not gone unnoticed.

"With a minimum of fanfare, Intel has begun shipping a version of the Pentium 4 with 64-bit instruction set extensions," writes a Slashdot regular. "The news came to light not via an Intel press release, but rather through the spec sheet for a new server from IBM."

Chipzilla did in fact put out a press release five days earlier about its dual-processor server chip but stayed quiet about the lower-end part.

Funny thing is the usually brash Intel has shied away from direct comparisons between its 64-bit extension line and competing processors from AMD. In press materials, Intel benchmarked the new 3.6GHz Xeon chip to its own, older Xeon processors. When asked about this, an Intel representative briefly stood by the line that "Intel does not compare its product to those of competitors in this type of presentation."

Really? What about all these slides reporters receive showing how the Itanium processor beats out Power, UltraSPARC, PA-RISC and Alpha chips on benchmarks?

After being reminded of this, Intel later admitted it does compare its own server products to those of competitors. Just not the new Xeons, apparently.

Intel has a point when it says the 64-bit technology might not be the most compelling aspect of the latest Xeons for workstations and low-end servers. Only a few customers are asking for 64-bit extensions right now and not a lot of software has been tuned to take advantage of the technology. This, however, doesn't explain why Intel would not put its "complete package" up against AMD's "complete package" on 32-bit ground.

"The message you should walk away with is that this really isn't about one technology or another, it's about delivering a collection of them," we were told.

Um, okay.

AMD will have a most difficult time unseating Intel as the "standards-based" server king. For example, well-known processor analyst Nathan Brookwood has refused to raise his 64-bit processor Mindshare Alert to the extreme "red level" until Dell picks up Opteron for its server line. That's seems like a pretty fair way of judging whether or not AMD and Opteron have truly arrived. You don't get more standard than Dell, and without the Round Rock Express on AMD's side, Opteron is still an experiment.

Intel, however, does not view AMD as some sort of pest just making life a little harder on the server front. Chipzilla has clearly constructed an entire "messaging system" around undermining the importance of AMD's 1) lead in the x86-64-bit market and 2) place as the apparent 32-bit performance leader.

Intel has never been like Sun Microsystems in that it will say the most inflammatory thing possible about a competitor. It has, however, been brave enough to stack its gear up against that of competitors when need.

In the case of Itanic, Intel rarely talked about the "complete package" because the "complete package" didn't look all that good. The rest of the guys were the established players and didn't ask their customers to suffer huge software ports. So, Intel turned to the raw performance of Itanium as reason to pay attention to the chip.

And while Intel has the lead in the x86 market, we're not sure the "complete package" theme will be enough to counter AMD's apparently fantastic overall performance.

Intel's CEO Craig Barrett recently ordered his troops to get tough and take no prisoners. The server unit should follow this advice and tackle AMD with more force. If it can . . . ®

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