Innovation Still Thrives

At every level of the enterprise IT stack, crucial technology transitions gained momentum in '02.

Despite industry doldrums and the glacial pace of IT spending, 2002 saw continued innovation and technology adoption at every level of the IT stack. From processors to worldwide networks, crucial transitions—such as those from 32- to 64-bit computing and from intermittent to always-on connections—gathered momentum. Acceptance of these and other new technologies may even have been aided by IT builders respite from the relentless expansion—with its lack of spare time to evaluate new options—of the previous boom.

After 17 years at the core of the PC platform, Intel Corp.s 32-bit iAPX386 instruction set may be ready to retire from the heavy lifting of new Web services and data mining applications—but not without a war of succession between the designated heir, Intels own 64-bit Itanium, and the challenger from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.

The release in 2002 of the Itanium 2 demonstrated Intels commitment to an ambitious platform with a completely new instruction set, demanding a major new software investment, but the Itanium has met with a lukewarm reception from system builders and software vendors. Although the Itanium has a promise of support from every major database provider, Itanium systems have yet to prove their cost-effectiveness in eWeek Labs tests of the Itaniums limited application portfolio as of years end.

Meanwhile, AMDs Athlon 64 and Opteron processors—introducing the 64-bit x86-64 superset of the 386 instruction set for desktops and servers, respectively—ended the year on track toward the companys promised combination of next-generation performance and previous-generation compatibility. Still open, though, is the question of x86-64 support from system software and enterprise middleware providers, a much-needed follow-on to the immediate, enthusiastic response of multimedia and gaming software developers.

Not waiting for either of these options to get dry behind the ears, a wide range of tasks formerly hosted on supercomputers moved in 2002 to Linux clusters. DaimlerChrysler AG, for example, estimated a 40 percent savings by shifting vehicle-collision simulations (representing 70 percent of its engineering groups computing workload) to a Linux cluster of 108 Intel dual-Xeon workstations. Meanwhile, Oracle Corp. and other major vendors rolled out key products targeting the cost-effective Linux cluster platform, and developers enjoyed low-cost, cluster-compatible tools from vendors such as Macromedia Inc. with its midyear launch of JRun 4.

At the opposite end of the hardware spectrum, efficient chips such as Intels 200MHz PXA250 extended the reach of the ARM instruction set beyond the Pocket PC platform into the competing realm of Palm OS 5—the long-overdue software response by Palm Inc. to the superior enterprise capabilities of Microsoft Corp.s Pocket PC 2002. The year ended with the release of Palm OS 5 devices, such as Sony Corp.s $600 PEG-NX70V, which set the pace for innovative handheld design and superior ergonomics with features such as an integral digital camera and a swivel-flip keyboard.

Keeping the pressure on Palm Inc. and its licensees, Hewlett-Packard Co. was quick to arrive at Comdex in November with a new iPaq—priced below $300—that successfully combined the best features of the former Compaq Computer Corp.s established PDA (personal digital assistant) line and HPs now-retiring Jornada into an attractive, affordable Pocket PC.

At this price point, HP competes head-to-head with a new PDA line from Dell Computer Corp. A bit of cost analysis, however, suggests that Dell is buying market share by taking a loss on every unit sold, while failing to understand that the enterprise and consumer PDA markets demand distinct solutions—a lesson finally learned by Palm (as shown by its launch of the Tungsten high-end brand) and already well-understood by HP (whose Comdex offerings also included new high-end units, with features such as integral fingerprint scanners to protect sensitive enterprise data).