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.
However, some industry observers arent sold on the idea, saying that future growth the platform will occur on Windows rather than Linux, particularly as Itanium pushes its way into high-end workloads like business intelligence and databases.
The 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. Although it debuted with a lot of hype and fanfare, Itanium hasnt really moved into a commanding role in the server market.”
However, representatives from the ISA (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 one of the technologies 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, headquartered in Melville, N.Y.
Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., and the ISA, a consortium of hardware and software vendors formed last fall and charged with growing Itaniums market, have positioned the 64-bit chip as a high-end RISC-replacement technology and mainframe alternative.
Poor early performance, product delays and the continued development of x86 chips—in particular Xeon and Opteron—have hobbled Itanium, however. HP currently is the only major hardware vendor offering a wide range of Itanium-powered systems, though a growing number of second-tier OEMs, such as NEC, Fujitsu Computer Systems and Unisys, are betting much of their futures on the architecture.
As indications of the growing popularity of Linux on Itanium, supporters point to the recent Gelato ICE (Itanium Conference & Expo) meeting, which specifically dealt with running Linux on Itanium, and the upcoming release by Intel of “Montecito,” the first dual-core Itanium chip that—combined with the Linux 2.6 kernel—will enable users to scale their Linux deployments.
In addition, the ISA is using developer events and global solution centers to entice Linux developers and users to bring their applications to Itanium.
“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. “Linux is an important element of these open standards, providing customers with greater choice for their platform solutions. As Linux matures, we see more and more solutions being deployed on the platform.”
Peddibhotla pointed to recent enhancements to the Linux kernel for Itanium, including memory error recovery—enabling Linux to kill an affected process if a certain memory error occurs in a user-mode page rather than crashing the whole system—CPU hot-plug, and patches from Intel and HP related to Montecito support.
Intel also is working with the open-source community to bring support for Xen—the open-source virtualization hypervisor—to Itanium, and working with Linux distributors like Red Hat and Novell 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 the Linux providers, Peddibhotla said.
There also are a number of software development products for Linux on Itanium, including compilers, VTune Performance Analyzer, Intel threading and cluster tools and performance libraries.
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—its Unix variant—on the systems.
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“[Linux] represents a sizeable 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 analyst firm 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 deallocate components before there is a failure and the system crashes, he 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 the awareness of Itanium among enterprise users was greater than expected, and is predicting that the Itanium market will grow from $1.4 billion in 2004 to $6.6 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. In 2005, Unix—mostly HP-UX—accounted for 57 percent of all Itanium workloads, followed by Linux at 19 percent and Windows at 16 percent. By 2009, IDC expects those percentages to be 51 percent Unix, 17 percent Linux and 26 percent Windows.
The operators of the Boston Marathon illustrate this trend. In 2005, organizers used an HP Integrity system running Linux applications to create and deliver alerts throughout the race, while another Integrity server ran the SQL Server 2000 database.
For 2006, organizers continued using the Integrity system for the back-end database, but used x86 ProLiants for the runner alerts, said John Burgholzer, technology coordinator for the marathon. The Integrity system worked well for that job last year, but seemed like overkill for the work, Burgholzer said. The ProLiants were capable of handling the job of tracking the runners, while the Integrity systems were better utilized handling the massive amounts of hits on the database during the race.
“On race day, we got 10 million hits, mostly in the 6 hours [of the race], so we get our databases hit pretty hard,” he said. “We used Integrity [with the database] because of the high volume of hits on it.”
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