Proponents of Intels 64-bit Itanium chip see Linux as a key growth driver for the architecture and are looking at ways to enhance the chip and the systems that run on it to make them more attractive to Linux users.
At the same time, companies that support the chip are rolling out programs aimed at making it easier to port applications onto Itanium and gearing up marketing pushes to highlight Linux-on-Itanium as an alternative to Unix-on-RISC platforms.
But some industry observers arent buying it, saying that future growth of the platform will occur on Windows rather than Linux, particularly as Itanium pushes its way into high-end workloads like those associated with business intelligence and databases.
Lower-end applications will run on x86-based systems powered by Intels Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices Opteron chips, observers said. "We still expect Linux to be the fastest-growing operating system over the next two years," said Joseph Gonzalez, an analyst with Gartner, based in Stamford, Conn. "On the Itanium side, we really dont foresee strong growth during that time."
However, representatives from the Itanium Solutions Alliance and Itanium stalwarts such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard have said Itanium is an attractive landing place for businesses looking to migrate their high-end Unix workloads to a standard platform. In addition, Linux is a technology common to all these companies.
"Linux is very important to the ISA because Linux is one of the open operating systems that all members of ISA share," said Mike Mitsch, general manager of alliances for NEC Solutions America, in Rancho Cordova, Calif.
Poor early performance, product delays and the continued development of x86 chips have hobbled Itanium. HP is the only major hardware vendor offering a wide range of Itanium-powered systems, though a growing number of second-tier OEMs are betting on the architecture.
As indications of the growing popularity of Linux on Itanium, supporters point to the recent Gelato ICE (Itanium Conference & Expo), which specifically dealt with running Linux on Itanium, and the upcoming release by Intel of "Montecito," the first dual-core Itanium chip, which—combined with the Linux 2.6 kernel—will enable scaling of Linux deployments.
"Itanium brings open standards to the high end of the server market that traditionally has been the domain of costly, proprietary systems," said Rammohan Peddibhotla, director of Intels Open Source Technology Center.
Peddibhotla pointed to recent enhancements to the Linux kernel for Itanium, including memory error recovery, CPU hot plugging, and patches from Intel and HP related to Montecito support.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., also is working with the open-source community to bring support for Xen—the open-source virtualization hypervisor—to Itanium and is working with Linux distributors to ensure that their products support the latest Itanium features.
Montecito will offer Intels on-chip virtualization technology, and Xen will be the base for virtualization options from Linux providers, Peddibhotla said.
Officials with HP, of Palo Alto, Calif., said they see Linux as a key part of the multiple operating system push on the companys Itanium-based Integrity systems. HP is standardizing its high-end servers on the architecture and can run Linux, Windows and HP-UX on the systems.
"[Linux] represents a sizable opportunity for the architecture," said Stephen Bacon, Linux Integrity business manager for HPs Business Critical Servers unit. There already are 2,300 Linux applications that support Itanium, and market researcher IDC ranks Itanium as the second-most-popular server architecture for Linux after x86, Bacon said.
HP is looking to bring greater reliability features to Integrity systems running Linux, such as the ability to de-allocate components before there is a failure and the system crashes, Bacon said.
Scalability is also a development focus, particularly with Montecito on the way, as well as enhancements in chip-set design. HP in March introduced its "Arches" chip set for the Integrity line.
However, some analysts say Windows will be more important to future growth. IDC, in Framingham, Mass., found in a survey that awareness of Itanium among enterprise users is greater than expected, and it is predicting that the Itanium market will grow from $1.4 billion in 2004 to $6.6 billion in 2010.
But, IDC analyst Matthew Eastwood said, as Itanium workloads shift more to high-end enterprise applications, so will the growth of Windows on the architecture.
Itaniums struggle to gain on Linux
Early stumbling blocks
* Poor early performance
* Product delays
* Continued development of x86 chips—in particular, Xeon and Opteron
Plans to surmount them
* Recent enhancements to Linux kernel for Itanium, including memory error recovery, CPU hot plugging, and patches from Intel and HP related to Montecito support
* Upcoming support for Xen
* Work with Red Hat and Novell to ensure that their products support the latest Itanium features