Itanium: New Opening for Linux?

Intel's new Itanium chip is getting muffled yawns from some quarters, but for Linux vendors, the architecture could represent a sterling opportunity to make much-desired inroads into high-end computing environments.

Intels new Itanium chip is getting muffled yawns from some quarters, but for Linux vendors, the architecture could represent a sterling opportunity to make much-desired inroads into high-end computing environments.

At the very least, this years rollout of Itanium servers and workstations will help Linux developers get their collective foot in the door in enterprise accounts — if not actually win the business of customers that might have otherwise chosen Microsoft Windows or Unix operating systems (OSes).

Caldera International, Red Hat, SuSe Linux and Turbolinux all plan to release their 64-bit versions of Linux for the Itanium processor this summer.

Rob Enderle, research fellow at Giga Information Group, said information technology shops that run Linux are by nature early adopters of new technologies, so they would be more receptive to kicking the tires on a new microprocessor architecture such as Itanium and would also choose to test it with Linux.

"This is an opportunity, because of the timing, for the Linux folks to move in and around Microsoft," Enderle said. "Initially, youd expect to see Linux get a lot of mind share from this."

Itanium is the first in a new family of chips that represent Intels bid to break into corporate data centers, where very high-performance applications typically run on relatively expensive Unix servers or mainframes. Analysts, however, expect sales of Itanium systems to be modest. Intel has been treating Itanium as something of a trial run, with hopes of getting much greater traction with the next processor in the family, McKinley, which is slated for release in the first half of 2002.

The Itanium chips 64-bit architecture breaks from Intels traditional 32-bit architecture, providing the ability to handle applications that require much more memory: Itanium can support thousands of terabytes of physical system memory, Intel said, whereas the 32-bit chips, which include the Pentium line, have a limit of about 4 gigabytes of memory. The Itanium chip took seven years and $1 billion to develop.

Intel has teamed with Linux vendors to bring the open source OS to the new chip. And those vendors are eager to raise Linux to a high-performance platform. "We now have a chance to offer Linux as a first-class operating system across the whole spectrum, from embedded applications to the enterprise," said Michael Tiemann, chief technical officer at Red Hat. Intel was one of the first equity investors in Red Hat in 1998.

Tiemann said Red Hat has had roughly equal access to the developer prototypes of Itanium as Microsoft has had, "plus or minus a week."

"I think IA-64 [Itanium] gives us an opportunity to open a lead against Microsoft," he said. "Weve got the momentum, and the fact is, because we had equal and early opportunity to work on this, were starting from a position of strength."

But not everyone thinks Itanium will level the playing field for Linux. Mark Hudson, director of worldwide marketing for Hewlett-Packards business systems unit, said HP generally recommends running Linux only for basic access applications, such as Web serving. For business-critical databases and other business applications, he said, "nothing can scale like HP-UX, which we think will be the most robust Unix operating system available for Itanium."

Intel is enlisting several partners to bring the new chip to market. HP, which co-developed the chip, last week announced a two-processor workstation and four- and 16-processor servers with Itanium chips, due later this summer. HP lets customers choose Windows, Linux or its own HP-UX Unix OS with its systems.

Compaq Computer, Dell Computer, IBM and Unisys also announced plans to introduce Itanium-based systems in the next few months.

Meanwhile, Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs vice president of systems software research, said that while early adopters of Itanium systems may test them out with Linux, that doesnt mean Linux will be selected as the platform for the final deployment of a companys production application.

"I dont think [Itanium] is a broad opportunity for Linux to knock somebody else out of the room," Kusnetzky said. "But it might let Linux enter into enterprises where they didnt previously have the key to the door."

With Itanium, Intel has targeted as its prime competitor Sun Microsystems, which has a very strong presence with its 64-bit UltraSPARC-based servers running Suns Solaris, a Unix OS. Intel and Sun actually had an agreement to port Solaris to Itanium, but the relationship soured early last year.

Intel said it will bring "Intel Architecture economics" to the high-end computing arena by providing a widely supported chip architecture produced in large volume. "The price points of the Itanium systems coming out are a huge departure from anything in the enterprise space," said Lisa Hambrick, director of marketing for the Itanium processor family at Intel.

Although apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult, machines carrying Itanium chips appear to be less expensive.

But Chris Kruell, group marketing manager for computer systems at Sun, disputed Intels pricing claims, saying Sun realizes the same economies of scale that Intel does.

Intel has also worked closely with Microsoft, which developed a 64-bit server program scheduled to ship on the first available Itanium-based PC servers this summer, as well as a workstation version, Windows XP 64-Bit Edition, that will be available in the fall.

Technology Editor Charles Babcock contributed to this report.