Intel will move its separate Itanium and Xeon microprocessor architectures to a common system platform by 2007. The plan could spell bigger margins for resellers if it succeeds in repositioning the high-end, 64-bit Itanium as a mainstream replacement for the Xeon commodity server CPU.
Intel will bring the two lines together by creating a unified 64-bit motherboard with a new, one-size-fits-all socket.
"We're working with OEMs like HP, IBM and others to develop one system that will support either Itanium processors or Xeon processors," says Jason Waxman, director of multiprocessor marketing for Intel's Enterprise Product Group. "A reseller will be able to configure whatever they need with just one platform box. You can put either Xeons or Itaniums out to the customer."
"It's a lot of flexibility," Waxman adds. "But in order for us to do it, you have to design one motherboard that supports both. It has to be a socket that supports either type of processor and a bus architecture that supports both. It has been something that customers have been asking us for for a while now, and we now see a path to get there by 2007."
For VARs, the common motherboard could cut in half the number of required SKUs.
"Today, Itaniums don't fit into Xeon boxes, and Xeons don't fit into Itanium boxes," Waxman says. "So the reseller has to have an inventory of both boxes on hand."
Long term, the plan could eventually spell the end for Xeon because by 2007 the extra cost of upgrading to Itanium"as measured on a price/performance basis"is expected to be insignificant or nil.
"By 2007, Itanium will be one-and-a-half to two times the performance of our Xeon, but the system cost is going to be the same," Waxman says.
Itanium is a fully 64-bit family of RISC-killers competing at the high end of the market against IBM's Power, HP's PA-RISC and Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc. Xeon is a line of 32-bit, x86-compatible processors to which Intel recently added a hybrid 32/64-bit chip"code-named Nancona"that can run 64-bit software via a set of instruction set extensions. Xeon is targeted at the commodity server market, where it competes against AMD's 32/64-bit Opteron.
Intel may be looking to head off AMD at the 64-bit pass if it can reposition Itanium as a more mainstream processor rather than just an up-market competitor.
"We're starting to hit commodity price points with Itanium," Waxman says. "[That's] a lot more exciting to a reseller, versus trying to sell fewer high-end platforms. So [this] gives them a lot more opportunity, and at the same time allows them to service whatever market need they have."
Intel has just begun making its plans known via a presentation it's showing customers, which bills the move as "common platform components lead[ing] to common platform infrastructure over time."
"In that  timeframe, all of the volume at the system level will be driven off of one platform," Waxman says. "There's a tremendous amount of flexibility at the reseller level to be able to configure the order for the customer."
"If customers want maximum performance, they'll go with Itanium," Waxman continues. "If they have a lot of 32-bit code and they still want to run Xeon-based processors, they'll be able to do that. If the customer orders [a system] with Xeons, and then a year or two later they want Itaniums, you can swap out the Xeons for the Itaniums and do a firmware upgrade."