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Intel Corp. is removing the hardware circuitry in the upcoming next-generation Itanium 2 chip that lets users run 32-bit applications on the 64-bit processor, leaving those duties to the chip maker’s emulation software.

The dual-core “Montecito” chip will be the first Itanium processor not to offer the hardware circuitry, said Intel spokesperson Erica Fields.

The IA-32 Execution Layer, which was introduced into Itanium more than two years ago, has proven to be better performing and more flexible than the hardware-based feature.

Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., put the 32-bit capabilities into Itanium to help developers and users migrate their 32-bit applications to the 64-bit platform.

While Itanium can run 32-bit applications, the performance is not at the same level as 64-bit applications.

“After talking to a number of end users, we found that running 32-bit applications [on Itanium] was not a common usage model,” she said.

“With the advent of 64-bit Xeons, that was going to become an even less common usage model.”

Intel engineers decided to remove the 32-bit hardware circuitry to free up the silicon real estate for other technology, such as dual-core, HyperThreading and on-chip virtualization. Montecito will be the first Itanium processor to offer such features as dual cores and the Intel Virtualization Technology.

Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research Inc., said the move by Intel makes sense.

“Most of those 32-bit capabilities were aimed, initially at least, at trying to get developers of 32-bit apps to get them ported to the [Itanium] platform,” said King, in Hayward, Calif. “Any benefits they would’ve gotten from that have been done. There’s not a lot more out there.”

In 1994, Intel and Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced what eventually would become the Itanium project, designed to become the processing platform that would replace not only the x86 architecture but also RISC technologies.

However, the chip initially was hampered by poor performance and missed deadlines, and later hobbled by the rise of 64-bit capabilities in x86 processors, first introduced in 2003 in Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Opteron chip.

Intel initially resisted the move, pushing ahead with Itanium and adding the IA-32 EL, but eventually brought 64-bit capabilities to its Xeon and Pentium chips in 2004.

Those 64-bit x86 processors from both Intel and AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif., have gained wide adoption, and Itanium’s mission has since been shifted to one of targeting high-end workloads and RISC-replacement programs.

HP, of Palo Alto, Calif., has been the key ally for Itanium.

Read more here about HP’s Itanium plans.

It is in the process of standardizing its entire line of high-end systems on the chip, and in 2004 announced it was investing another $3 billion to help market Itanium.

Other second-tier systems makers, including Silicon Graphics Inc., NEC Solutions America Inc. and Unisys Corp., have embraced Itanium as a way of gaining greater traction in the high-end computing space.

They and other hardware makers last fall joined several software vendors, including Microsoft Corp. and SAP AG, in creating the Itanium Solutions Alliance, designed to crank up backing for the chip.

The group this month released a catalog listing the various applications and other solutions available on the Itanium platform.

However, most top-tier OEMs outside of HP have opted out of offering Itanium servers. The latest was Dell Inc., of Round Rock, Texas, which in September stopped selling its Itanium-based servers.

Intel also announced in October that Montecito, which was scheduled for release in late 2005, would be delayed until the middle of this year due to quality issues.

The delay comes at a time when high-end processor competitors, including IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., are pushing out new products.

Most recently, Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., rolled out its UltraSPARC T1 chip, a processor with up to eight cores that also comes with features designed for greater energy efficiency.

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