With Pentium III released, Intel readies Merced for next year

PC chip clock speeds will increase, benchmark numbers will migrate upward, and prices
will gravitate downward.

But dramatic changes will not happen until mid to late 2000, when Intel Corp.’s
long-awaited Merced (IA-64) CPU starts shipping. When it arrives, Merced will likely give
Intel an even stronger foothold in the workstation arena. Until then, Intel x86
architecture will get several performance boosts.

The new Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon chip sets are the first stopgap improvements
before Merced. They offer a 500-MHz clock speed and the Katmai New Instruction set. For
current software, the faster clock speed means an immediate 10 percent boost—not
earth-shattering, but a clear step forward.

As Intel ramps up chip production, Pentium III prices will settle at current Pentium II
levels. Check with a hardware vendor before you upgrade your Pentium II to Pentium III.
Not all motherboards will accept the Pentium III, and watch for voltage differences.

The Pentium III chip has 70 additional instructions, eight new registers and faster
internal memory streaming, all designed to accelerate 3-D graphics applications and
multimedia. As with Intel’s MMX technology, software will have to be rewritten to
take advantage of KNI.

3-D games and other consumer software will benefit most. Higher-end 3-D apps, which use
OpenGL to accelerate 3-D work, probably won’t see large gains, but Intel says the
chip can also speed up nonuniform random b-splines, widely used in mechanical
computer-aided design apps.

Although the Xeon leads the x86 world in performance, it still lags behind the fastest
RISC chips, which crunch numbers twice as fast. When Merced arrives, Intel floating-point
performance will jump to the same levels as RISC.

Meanwhile, Intel’s route to better floating-point performance is via a
multiprocessor workstation.

Benchmarks show that dual Intel CPUs can provide nearly double floating-point speed.

But apps must be properly multithreaded to take advantage of that increase, and
multiprocessor workstations have a high price. If you need more floating-point speed in an
Intel workstation, you will have to pay that price, at least for this year.

Merced is expected to debut at 800 MHz. It will have larger 64-bit registers and faster
floating-point performance, and still provide binary compatibility with x86 software.

Hewlett-Packard Co. is counting on Merced to succeed the PA-RISC family in its Unix
workstations. Strong rumors suggest that Silicon Graphics Inc. may abandon in-house chip
development, if Merced delivers the promised performance.

Intel is actively courting other RISC-Unix vendors with Merced, while pursuing
alternative operating systems, such as Linux, to further expand its workstation base. Does
this mean that RISC workstations are dead? Not in 1999, and probably not in 2000, either.

HP and SGI may migrate to Merced, but they are not abandoning RISC just yet. IBM Corp.,
Digital Equipment Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. are all likely to continue developing
RISC machines to compete with Merced.

But, whether it’s for RISC or Merced, the price of leading-edge floating-point
performance is likely to stay high. n

Ted Drude writes about workstation hardware and software in Madison, Ala.

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