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Itanium Feels the Squeeze

Once a contender for broad use in mid-range and high-end workstation and server applications, the Intel Itanium processor is being pummeled into a corner.

Intel's top-of-the-line 64-bit processor, with its revolutionary design that includes a next-generation instruction set, is finding itself constrained to high-end server applications. There it will have to prove itself against RISC chips, even as it staves off less-expensive competition from 32-bit and 64-bit x86 alternatives that seem to be scaling at a "good-enough" pace.

Recent events highlight the broad trend toward a pigeonholed Itanium, although the trend has been a long time coming. Late last year, HP, which co-developed Itanium with Intel, disclosed plans to phase out its line of Itanium-based workstations, the zx2000 and the zx6000. HP cited customer demand for x86 systems with 64-bit extensions. Those x86-64 systems are sold by AMD as the AMD64 platform and by Intel as the EM64T extensions to Xeon processors.

In January, Microsoft officials confirmed the phase-out of Windows XP 64-Bit Edition Version 2003. (That's the mouthful of a name Microsoft used for the Windows XP workstation OS supporting Itanium 2). In some sense, the decision was moot, given that once HP stopped selling the workstation, there was nowhere for the OS to load. But Microsoft also disclosed that the unreleased Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition for Itanium 2 operating system will also go by the boards.

"Microsoft believes Windows for Itanium-based systems is a stronger offering in the high-end server market, and will continue to promote and offer Windows Server 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter Editions for Itanium-based systems, intended for customers who require the highest levels of scalability," a Microsoft spokesman said in an e-mail to reporters. "For the mainstream server and workstation markets, however, we believe we can best serve our customers' needs with Windows Server 2003 Standard x64 Edition, and Windows XP Professional x64 Edition, respectively." The x64 Edition is Microsoft's name for operating systems running the AMD64 and Intel EM64T-enabled processors.

Intel officials say Microsoft's decision is consistent with Intel's own message: Use EM64T for mid-range performance and Itanium for high-end server applications. But that hasn't always been Intel's story. The history of Itanium so far is one of reduced expectations. It started with delayed chip delivery dates followed by reductions in operating system and application support, then hardware and software emulation performance. Evidence for Intel's once-broad ambitions for the chip can be found in how hard the chipmaker tried to blunt AMD64's momentum by belittling AMD's alternative x86-64 approach before finally emulating AMD64 with the EM64T.

Still, analysts at Gartner interpreted a joint announcement by HP and Intel in December 2004 as a sign that Intel remains committed to Itanium development. Intel is hiring HP's Itanium processor design team in Fort Collins, Colo., and HP says it will invest $3 billion over the next three years in Itanium 2-based Integrity servers. Much of that investment will go toward promoting HP's own servers running the HP-UX flavor of Unix, which HP has been busily migrating from PA-RISC to Itanium over the last few years.

"Intel plans for the long term, and views Itanium as a 10-year project with great potential," a group of Gartner analysts wrote of the HP-Intel commitment.

The 10-year project has one obvious opportunity to regain some ground in the high-volume server space in the next few years. According to Intel's last major public roadmap, a Tukwila version of Itanium sometime around or after 2007 will run on a common chipset with Xeon processors. At that point, Intel expects its own processor lines to be on even footing as far as pricing. The question then will be again, will Itanium's performance delta be so stunning (and necessary) compared to Xeon that vendors and in-house development shops will be willing to spend the money and time to port their applications?

It's a good bet that, even at that point, the x86-64 hybrids will still be proving themselves good enough.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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