Intel at a Crossroads With Itanium

Intel this week reaffirmed its commitment to developing the Itanium processor, but also said it wants to grab market share with Xeon server chips in high-performance computing, where Itanium also plays.

Itanium's future has come under scrutiny following the chip maker's launch last week of new Xeon 7500 server processors and Microsoft's announcement this week that it would end Windows Server support for Itanium.

The Xeon 7500 processors, also called Nehalem-EX, are Intel's most powerful for enterprise servers with security and dependability features comparable to Itanium, analysts said. But Itanium volumes are dwindling, and Intel wants to push x86-based Xeon processors as an alternative to chips like IBM's Power7 and Oracle/Sun's Sparc, which are based on the RISC (reduced instruction set computer) architecture.

Intel wants Nehalem-EX chips to conquer new territories, said Shannon Poulin, director of Xeon platform marketing at Intel, during an event earlier this week held in New York. "We are not going to hold Xeon back in any way," Poulin said.

Poulin declined to directly address questions of whether Xeon could replace Itanium in the future. Analysts, however, said a declining Itanium market could make way for Xeon chips as customers move server installations to the mainstream x86 environment, though it could take many years.

Microsoft earlier this week said it would end support for the latest version of Windows Server, Windows Server 2008 R2, for Itanium by 2018.

"Why the change? The natural evolution of the x86 64-bit architecture has led to the creation of processors and servers which deliver the scalability and reliability needed for today's "mission-critical" workloads," wrote Dan Reger, senior technical product manager for Windows Server at Microsoft in a blog entry.

Intel's Poulin said the OS was installed in less than 5 percent of Itanium servers, and it didn't make commercial sense for Microsoft to continue support, he said.

Intel is now trying to refocus Itanium to differentiate it from its x86 processors. Itanium will be targeted at systems running the HP-UX OS and at "select mainframe markets" based on Unix and other operating systems, said Rob Shiveley, Intel's mission-critical platform marketing manager. Xeon chips will be for mission-critical servers running the Windows, Linux and Solaris operating systems.

Intel will also continue to invest and develop new Itanium processors, which will be released in two-year increments, an Intel spokesman said. The company in February released the latest Itanium processor code-named Tukwila, which will be followed by Poulson and then Kittson.

There are many reasons for Intel to continue Itanium's development, analysts said.

Intel has many Itanium customers, with Hewlett-Packard being the largest for its fault-tolerant Integrity line of enterprise servers, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64. Intel has a long-term commitment with HP over Itanium's development, which the chip maker will honor. HP faced a painful transition from its own PA-RISC architecture to Itanium, and may not be willing to change to x86 immediately.

Itanium is also a "dumping ground" for many Unix and non-Unix operating systems still being used in enterprise servers, Brookwood said. One of those operating systems is GCOS, a family of non-Unix operating systems still being offered in servers. General Electric developed the original version of GCOS in 1962, which then called GECOS. Groupe Bull, a mainframe vendor in France, still sells GCOS8 mainframe servers.

Intel also has to meet contractual obligations of users who signed up for long-term agreements with server makers when they bought Itanium systems, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"I would be very surprised to see the plug get pulled on Itanium over the next few years," McCarron said.

But at some point companies will have to break away from expensive specialized chips and jump to x86, which are less expensive, McCarron said. In the "extreme" long term, Intel and HP could reach some kind of agreement to migrate to x86 servers, McCarron said.

Intel is trying to make it cheaper for system vendors to validate and offer Nehalem-EX chips alongside Itanium through commonality in hardware designs, such as memory and chipset components, McCarron said. Nehalem-EX has also adapted Itanium's RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features and MCA Recovery error correction feature to reduce data corruption and ensure reliable system performance.

"Itanium provides a gateway to x86 and allows Intel to do direct competition with RISC players in that market," McCarron said.

But such savings could be offset by the expense of porting software to x86, said Jack Gold, principal analyst with J. Gold Associates.

"The hardware is the easy part, porting the software is the hard part," Gold said.

Converting the old code base to x86 can take time, and companies heavily tied to legacy software may be unwilling to go through the makeover, Gold said. The conversion also depends on the software design and process, Gold said.

Intel over time will need to facilitate code conversion, but in the short term it needs to protect Itanium customers from IBM, analysts said. IBM may take advantage of Itanium's uncertainty to shift customers to the recently announced Power7, which is faster and more scalable than Itanium, analysts said.

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