Microsoft to End Intel Itanium Support

Citing the high-end scalability and reliability of new x86 chips from Intel and AMD, Microsoft plans to end support for Intel's Itanium processors after the current versions of Windows Server, SQL Server and Visual Studio. The announcement comes days after Intel launched its eight-core Xeon 7500 chips and AMD unveiled its 12-core Opteron 6000 platform.

Days after Intel and Advanced Micro Devices launched new high-end x86 chips that drive the architecture higher up the server chain, Microsoft officials announced they are ending support for Intel's Itanium chip in their server software.

In an April 2 post on the Windows Server blog, Dan Reger, a Microsoft senior technical product manager, said the capabilities Intel and AMD put into their latest high-end server chips-and OEM interest in putting these processors in four- and eight-socket servers-essentially have made the Itanium architecture superfluous.

"Why the change? The natural evolution of the x86 64-bit ('x64') architecture has led to the creation of processors and servers which deliver the scalability and reliability needed for today's 'mission-critical' workloads,'" Reger wrote. "Just this week, both Intel and AMD have released new high core-count processors, and servers with eight or more x64 processors have now been announced by a full dozen server manufacturers. Such servers contain 64 to 96 processor cores, with more on the horizon."

Click here for a look at the new chips and servers.

Reger said Windows Server 2008 R2 will be the last version of Windows Server to support Itanium, and likewise SQL Server 2008 R2 and Visual Studio 2010 will be the last versions of those products to support Intel's EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) architecture chips.

The transition will take eight years, he said. Each of the current products supports the latest iteration of Itanium, the 9300 series, formerly code-named Tukwila, released in February following several delays.

Microsoft, in accordance with its Support Lifecycle Policy, will end support for Itanium-based systems and R2 on July 9, 2013, though extended support will continue until July 10, 2018.

"That's eight more years of support," Reger said. "Microsoft will continue to focus on the x64 architecture and its new business-critical role, while we continue to support Itanium customers for the next eight years as this transition is completed."

Intel's Itanium architecture has been under the microscope since the chip maker and Hewlett-Packard began working on it in the late 1990s. Delays and performance issues dogged it in its early years, and more recently the rise in the scalability and capabilities of x86 offerings from both Intel and AMD have had analysts questioning Itanium's future.

Intel officials have laid out a road map for Itanium looking several generations down the road. However, at the March 30 launch event for the eight-core Xeon 7500 series "Nehalem EX" processors, even company officials sounded a bit skeptical about Itanium's long-term viability. Kirk Skaugen, vice president of the Intel architecture group and general manager of its data center unit, was asked directly about the Xeon 7500 series' impact on Itanium.

"These are two distinctly different architectures," Skaugen said. "There is room for them at this time. That said, 90 percent of our Itanium business is mainframe and HP-UX-based. Intel expects to migrate a lot of those machines to Xeon over time, but for now, it [Itanium] is still a very good business for us."

Intel officials in 2009 said they were taking aim at the high-end server market with Nehalem EX-made for systems with four or more sockets-targeting workloads traditionally reserved for RISC systems and mainframes. Those also are the workloads that run on Itanium.

The Xeon 7500 launch didn't disappoint. The processors offer three times the performance of previous Xeons, can run in servers that scale from two to 256 sockets, and have a memory capacity of up to a terabyte. Intel also added 20 new reliability features that until now were only found in RISC and mainframe systems, including Machine Check Architecture Recovery, which works with the operating system and virtual machine manager to recover from what otherwise would be fatal system errors.

The new Xeon chips also were designed with virtualization and consolidation in mind. Businesses can take the workloads from 20 four-socket systems running single-core Xeon MP chips and put them onto one four-socket Xeon 7500-based system.

Intel officials are now focusing on mission-critical systems, and "targeted workloads include virtualization, database [and] business apps including workloads migrating from Unix/RISC to Linux or Windows on x86," IDC analyst Matt Eastwood said in an e-mail to eWEEK right after the launch.

Intel listed almost a dozen OEMs planning to launch eight-socket servers powered by Nehalem EX chips.

The day before the Xeon 7500 launch, AMD rolled out its Opteron 6000 "Magny-Cours" chips, with eight to 12 cores. While AMD officials said they are aiming the new Opterons at the more mainstream computing space, the new Opterons give the chip maker's server products a scalability that they hadn't seen before. They also should make it easier and less expensive for businesses running two-socket servers to make the move up to four-socket systems.