That Sound You Just Heard, Post-Hurd
Framing Wires for 3000 Management Plans

Itanium Chips Into Its Second Decade

ItaniumRoadmap2011 The best vehicle for HP-UX to grab any new system sales crosses the 10-year mark this month. Itanium made its debut in HP servers one decade ago, arriving just as HP was ready to cross out its futures in the HP 3000 line. HP started its migration mantra with a serious push toward Itanium servers and HP-UX. But that was long before Linux and low-cost Intel Xeon systems fractured HP's world domination plans. If this were golf, the current decade would be a chip shot after an errant drive off the tee of 2001, and iron-work to get HP's customers closer to the cup.

It's hard to remember that when this chip started, both Intel and HP predicted a hole in one: there would be little else to purchase by the early part of last decade. Itanium didn't even have a separate server line until Hewlett-Packard rolled out the Integrity servers, but a few HP 3000 sites adopted those initial Itanium systems anyway. These were the rx7xxx servers, and it didn't help their popularity that they were only marginally faster than PA-RISC systems for several years. Itanium 2 started to change all that, but by the time that next year's Poulsons got promised and today's 9300s had a shipping date, the markets had moved on to the other Intel chipset, x86-compatible Xeons.

It's now old-school thinking to believe that any hardware can spark sales on its own. IT managers need to see an ecosystem to invest, although they're good at sticking with technology that's efficient and not yet obsolete, with some growth options. Itanium still offers all of those, but its Unix software prospects are on the decline, with Linux taking in all the new enterprise installations which aren't Windowed. Linux runs on Itanium, but there's a spotty future there too, with the largest Linux vendor RedHat backing away.

HP's got an Itanium fan club in the Connect Itanium Solutions Alliance, a user group outpost where vendors (mostly) and users trade news and prospects for the chip ecosystem. One year ago the Alliance announced that Oracle's E-Business Suite Release 12 was being certified on the HP-UX Itanium platform. HP shipped off its latest Integrity servers running the 9300 Itanium, and this spring chip supplier Intel showed off a peek (above) at the future for a chip nobody figured would become so niche so quickly. The Alliance has its own newsletter online, plus a Twitter feed if keeping up with your migration target's only HP-UX platform is important to your planning.

Offered as the Valhalla of HP 3000 futures in 1999, what HP first called IA-64 had little chance at the broad popularity promised during the '90s. Six years ago Intel told analysts that Itanium "will be positioned as a high-end box designed to run data-intensive applications such as recognition, synthesis, and data-mining, "as well as high-transaction rate applications." We've said over and over that as Itanium goes, so goes HP-UX, because HP's Unix runs on nothing else by now.

But Intel likes the volume of sales that HP supplies today for the Itanium foundry. The chip vendor has never hinted that Itanium has been considered for end-of-life, as HP likes to say. But to say that Intel doesn't plan to cancel a chip that was unveiled with so much hubris in the 90s shows how far those plans have fallen. HP called the whole architecture Tahoe at first, and then Merced as it crept along at a suprisingly slow development pace.

By the time HP had divested itself of most technical control of Itanium, the chip still looked to be a guarantee of long life for any HP customer's platform. HP aired a dramatic telecast in the late '90s to tell 3000 customers IA-64 was not in the 3000's future. By 2001, the chip looked so important that one 3000 vendor tracked it against the future of the 3000. When IA-64 was delayed for the 3000s, the software vendor figured the writing was on HP's wall for 3000 futures.

That vendor turned out to be right, but Itanium didn't carry much sway outside of HP designs. Even last year the Alliance was pointing to a new Chinese OEM which was building Itanium systems. But while an IT manager might not track chip hardware anymore, the software suppliers certainly so, just like that 3000 vendor. Intel has a Data Center Group of chips now, and the DCG includes Mission Critical entries for both Itanium and what is termed "Expandable Xeon" chips: Boxboro-EX, Westermere-EX. Poulson and Kittson will join that group next year, so HP's probably designing Integrity systems to tap those, too.