Itaniums Revenge: Intels Chip Hits the Comeback Trail

Intel's often-maligned chip is getting the OEM and software support it needs to convince customers the platform has a steady future.

Intels Itanium chip, which has been hobbled over the past 11 years by poor performance, delayed releases and bad press, is undergoing a rejuvenation of sorts.

Intel, based in Santa Clara, Calif., is gearing up for the next generation of the chip to be released in the middle of 2006, while a group of OEMs and software makers are pledging $10 billion over the next four years to push adoption of the platform.

Research company IDC, of Framingham, Mass., said it is expecting the Itanium market to grow from $1.4 billion in 2004 to $6.6 billion in 2009—nowhere near initial predictions for the chip, but growth nonetheless.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read what Oracle, HP and Intel are doing to push the Itanium platform.

For customers that have bought Itanium-based systems, the positive signs give users confidence that the platform isnt going to disappear.

"Its obvious to me, in talking with Intel representatives, that theyre very much behind it," said Joshua Collazo, enterprise infrastructure director for UICI Insurance Center.

The North Richfield Hills, Texas, company bought nine ES7000 Itanium systems from Unisys in 2004, primarily for its Microsoft SQL Server 2000 environment, and two years later still has 40 percent headroom left, Collazo said. UICI might also expand the use of the systems to its OLAP (online analytical processing) workloads.

Itanium will be a key topic the week of March 6 at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. The Itanium Solutions Group—comprising a host of hardware and software makers, including Intel, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft—will have a featured spot on the showroom floor, where alliance members can show off their products.

For example, startup Platform Solutions will demonstrate its upcoming Itanium 2-based mainframe running both IBMs z/OS mainframe operating system and Linux from Red Hat. The Sunnyvale, Calif., company already has sent early versions of the system running on the current single-core "Madison" chip to some customers, but it will roll out its first full product this year when "Montecito" is released, said Christian Reilly, Platform Solutions director of marketing.

"This is probably the biggest year for Itanium, with Montecito [being released]," said Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intels Server Platforms Group, in Hillsboro, Ore.

/zimages/3/28571.gifPower efficiency will be the big issue at the Intel Developer Forum. Read more here.

Montecito—initially scheduled for release in late 2005, and now set for mid-2006—will bring such features as dual-core, on-chip virtualization and better energy efficiency to the platform. In future chips, Intel may add power management features similar to the Demand Based Switching in Intels Xeon processors, where the chips automatically throttle down during times of low utilization, Skaugen said.

The virtualization feature could help users looking to increase the utilization of the servers. Peter Cuenco, director of systems and professional service for Online Resources, an Internet financial services outsourcer, said he is looking to expand the use of the Express5800/1000 Itanium 2 systems the company bought in 2004 from NEC.

"We need to be able to grow vertically," said Cuenco, in Chantilly, Va. "Wed like to scale up without having to add new systems."

Continued software support also will be key. Itanium supporters point out that there are about 7,000 applications that can run on Itanium, and they expect that number to reach 9,000 within the next 18 months or so. However, UICIs Collazo said what will be equally important is when software makers release Itanium-ready software at the same time as they launch x86 versions.

"As a customer, Im looking, from a support perspective, when to plan upgrades, when to plan testing," Collazo said. "Right now, theyre five to six months behind [with the release of Itanium support in the software]. While theyre initially very vocal about support ... when you dig in there, when they launch anything, it probably isnt out yet [with Itanium support]."

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