Itanium Keeps on Plugging

The chip that was supposed to revolutionize computing has carved out a niche in the high-end server market.

The Itanium processor was supposed to drive the future of computing. Released eight years ago, Itanium is a pure, 64-bit microprocessor. Intel Corp. even gave up backward compatibility with x86, making Itanium compromise-free.

For years, the industry waited for this next generation, but once it arrived, the bloom came off. Two years later, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) had Opteron, a 64-bit chip more compatible with x86 than Intel itself.

The launch was such a dud that many declared Itanium dead on arrival. Even Intel hedged its bets and pushed Xeon x64 chips. But the Itanium community saw a diamond in the rough and stuck with it. These days Itanium may not command headlines, but, according to the Itanium Solutions Alliance, it's not just alive and well -- it's on a roll.

Joan Jacobs, president of the Itanium Solutions Alliance.

Redmond Editor in Chief Doug Barney spoke with Joan Jacobs, president of the Alliance, about what keeps Itanium ticking.

Redmond: Why did Itanium initially get a bad rap?
Jacobs: I think a lot of the negativity around Itanium in the early part of the decade had to do with the hype that was generated around the processor well before it launched -- and the delays associated with bringing an entirely new architecture to market. During its development, Itanium was built up by some as an industry savior. While it arrived to market as a solid server platform, expectations had been created that were simply unrealistic.

Who's driving its development?
Intel drives the development of the Itanium architecture. It probably goes without saying that the OEM hardware vendors who make a business in Itanium servers -- including Fujitsu, Groupe Bull, Hitachi, HP, NEC, SGI [Silicon Graphics International] and Super Micro -- work closely with Intel on Itanium.

What's its current positioning?
The Itanium architecture is squarely positioned at the high-end of the server market. From a competitive standpoint, its closest competition comes from the IBM Power systems and Sun's SPARC offerings -- though many Itanium server sales are made in replacement of legacy mainframe systems, as well.

What operating systems does it run, and which are most prevalent?
Itanium supports 10 different OS versions, with Windows Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novell SuSe Linux and the HP-UX variant of Unix being the most prevalent.

What applications take the most advantage of Itanium?
Generally speaking, applications that require an especially powerful, scalable, flexible computing resource benefit most from Itanium-based servers. Enterprise databases; ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems; Web services and e-commerce are great examples of that. The list of computationally intensive "supercomputer" applications that have benefitted from Itanium-based servers is a long one, too. Having said that, many companies adopt Itanium servers to run a host of business applications -- rather than dedicate the server to one or two massive workhorse apps, they take advantage of the system's scale to consolidate their business systems within a single, reliable footprint.

How many hardware partners are there, and what do they do?
Seven leading OEM vendors -- Fujitsu, Groupe Bull, Hitachi, HP, NEC, SGI and Super Micro -- sell Itanium-based servers. Each one has a unique approach to the market. Some of that's based on regional factors, and some of it has to do with their respective expertise in developing solutions that align with the needs of a particular market.

What about the impression that Itanium is really an HP solution, the way that Power6 is linked to IBM and SPARC to Sun?
The distinction between the Itanium architecture and its RISC-based competitors [those based on the reduced instruction set computer (RISC) model] is an important one for customers to understand. With those [other] suppliers, users are limited, or "locked in," on key issues such as which OS they can use; the core applications such as databases that are available to them; and the hardware vendors they can choose from. That not only limits a user's choices up front, but it limits them after the sale in ways like upgrade paths and service contracts, which can add up to unforeseen headaches and expense. Itanium is an open, industry-standard solution, so customers can choose among a roster of leading hardware vendors and run their preferred applications in the operating environment they choose. In fact, with the ease of partitioning afforded by the Itanium architecture, users can run Windows, Linux or Unix simultaneously on the same server.

Tell us about the software library.
The software library's unique architecture means that many software applications are ported to Itanium in order to run optimally. Facilitating that effort has been one of the roles of the Alliance. Today, there are more than 14,000 software applications available for Itanium-based servers, which means that users have a range of choices for whatever type of application they wish to deploy.

As x86/64 processors turn to multi-core and manycore, what's the role of alternatives?
There's no denying the advancement of x86 processors as enterprise-caliber alternatives with impressive price-performance value, and it's clear that x86 servers will continue to be the workhorses of many data centers. Often, those data centers will also have a role for uniquely reliable, massively scalable servers based on Itanium for the mission-critical workloads upon which business depends.

How does Itanium compete with SPARC and PowerPC/Power6?
There are important differences between each architecture that users are wise to educate themselves about, but the simplest answer comes back to the ecosystem that surrounds the processor. As an industry-standard architecture with broad ranges of hardware vendors, applications and OSes, users who choose Itanium-based servers prefer the choice and flexibility to define the best solution for their enterprise.

What should we look for from Itanium in the future?
2010 is going to be a very busy year for Itanium. With the planned debut of the next generation of the processor, I expect we'll see a great deal of excitement among the customers, manufacturers and software partners who comprise the vibrant ecosystem around Itanium-based servers. I encourage everyone to stay tuned.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.


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