Microsoft's Itanium, Server Decisions Hint at Business Shift

Microsoft's decision to end support for Intel's Itanium chip in its server architecture, along with terminating future development of its Essential Business Server, suggests that the company is attempting to shift its server business to take advantage of what it sees as developments in both the processor architecture and cloud computing space. At the same time, its moves in the consumer space, including the brutal elimination of several legacy products and the upcoming release of several new ones, suggest a parallel streamlining of its products.

Microsoft's recent decision to end support for Intel's Itanium chip in its server architecture, along with the elimination of its Essential Business Server (EBS) development, suggests that the company is trying to reposition to take advantage of several developing business IT trends, including virtualization and cloud computing. That paradigm shift is also mirrored on the consumer side, where at least one analyst has seen the recent wave of products as evidence that Microsoft is trying to retake ground lost over the past couple of years to Google and other companies.
Microsoft plans on ending support for Intel's Itanium chip in its server software was based on the belief that later advances in chip technology have made its architecture dispensable. As a result, Windows Server 2008 R2 will likely be the last version of Windows Server to support Itanium. Intel's EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) architecture chips will receive their last go-round from Microsoft in the SQL Server 2008 R2 and Visual Studio 2010 products.

"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," Dan Reger, a Microsoft senior technical product manager, wrote in an April 2 post on the Windows Server blog. "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."

Extended support for Itanium-based systems and R2 will continue through July 2018, added Reger. "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."

Although Intel's plans for Itanium ostensibly extend well into the future, Intel executives have publicly stated that they expect many mainframe and HP-UX-based machines to migrate to eight-core Xeon 7500 "Nehalem EX" processors over time. The Xeon 7500 processors, which offer three times the performance of previous Xeons, are targeted at high-end servers such as RISC systems and mainframes that currently leverage Itanium for their architecture.

Microsoft's fine-tuning of its business offerings, the better to adjust to a changing landscape, was also evident in its March 5 announcement that it will discontinue future development of its Windows Essential Business Server (EBS), effective June 30. Although it had been meant as an IT infrastructure option for midsize businesses, EBS found itself apparently outpaced by advances in cloud computing and virtualization; tools in those areas were already integrated into offerings such as Windows Server 2008 R2 and BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite), leading Microsoft to finally terminate EBS.

"This decision to not ship future versions of EBS does not come lightly and will not impact any other Windows Server products and solutions," read an unsigned note about the issue posted on the Windows Essential Business Server Team Blog on March 5. "As a matter of fact, we are working hard to build the next version of Windows Small Business Server (SBS) and look forward to a second decade of success with this award-winning small business offering."

Those Microsoft employees currently working on the EBS product development team are apparently due to be shifted over to other projects within the Microsoft Server and Cloud division, while current EBS customers can expect a five-year mainstream and five-year extended support cycle for their product.

In a March 5 e-mail to eWEEK, a Microsoft spokesperson termed the elimination of EBS as a "streamlining" of the company's product portfolio. "This decision represents a natural market shift in midsize businesses' preferences toward creating their own IT solutions."