Intel Corp.'s Pentium Pro

No sooner had Intel Corp. annnounced, with predictable fanfare, its latest chip, the
Pentium Pro, than Compaq, the largest manufacturer of PCs, said it would hold off building
Pentium Pro machines until a timing problem with certain network cards was resolved.


In essence, the problem is that the cards are too slow for the chip, and that can
result in terminated network connections. Intel acknowledged the problem, and both
companies said lists of compatible network cards would need to be developed.


This is no math bug like the one that caused the flap earlier this year. It's not
really a bug or flaw at all. Yet it indicates a much larger problem. Namely, that plug and
play is still more dream than reality for the PC architecture. Network administrators, if
the Compaq discovery is any indication, can expect more, not fewer, headaches in the P6
era.


This is not to nitpick Intel. To the contrary, this chip, coming as it does from a
marketing and technical powerhouse, changes the high-end computing landscape in a way that
makes product choices more complex.


The Pentium Pro is analagous to Microsoft's Windows NT, in that both products are
designed to move their offerers up from the desktop into the server market. NT has been
called ""Microsoft Unix.'' The Pentium Pro is designed to compete in raw
computing power with the ""classic'' RISC chips--Sparc, Mips and PA RISC, for
example--that are the domain of floating point-intensive computing. Pentium Pro is really
a chipset on a single substrate, so you have both integer and floating point-optimized
processing units.


For years, the technology choice for the average desktop user has been--like it or
not--a no-brainer. Pretty much everyone is going to have to go Windows 95. Similarly,
there hasn't been all that much choice for hardware upgrades; it's been
8088-286-386-486-Pentium.


When you get into the server and workstation levels of computing, the choices no longer
are so obvious. Intel senses this and has priced the Pentium Pro lower than it typically
has priced a brand new chip. It even used beta testers.


The usual chorus of analysts already is trumpeting Pentium Pro because a $4,000 box
with the new chip allegedly can equal the performance of a $6,000 or $10,000 box with,
say, an Alpha or Sparc processor. But in network servers and high-performance
workstations, lifecycle costs, including administration and network behavior, figure
highly. Also important are the bus, memory configuration and peripherals. So it's
premature to write off everyone else. Pentium Pro is the one with the burden of proof this
time.


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