Intel Changes Direction on Next-Generation Itanium Platform

The "Kittson" chip will be 32nm, rather than 22nm, and will not be socket-compatible with Intel's Xeons, fueling questions about Itanium's future.

Intel officials are changing some of the goals they have for the next generation of their high-end Itanium platform, a move brought on by declining demand in the Unix server market and changing requirements of OEMs using Itanium, which essentially means Hewlett-Packard.

Intel issued a brief, one-paragraph notice on its Website Jan. 31 announcing that the next version of the Itanium—code-named Kittson and which is still two to three years from being released—will be built on the 32-nanometer manufacturing process rather than 22nm, which had been the earlier plan.

At the same time, Kittson will not be socket-compatible with Intel's x86-based Xeon server chips. Instead, it will be socket-compatible with the existing Itanium 9300 Tukwila and 9500 Poulson processors. The 9500 Series was introduced in November 2012, and HP introduced enhanced Itanium servers at the same time.

"The modular development model, which converges on a common Intel Xeon/Intel Itanium socket and motherboard, will be evaluated for future implementation opportunities," Intel officials said in the notice.

The future of the controversial Itanium platform has been debated for years—most recently during a heated legal dispute between HP and enterprise software giant Oracle—and the changes to the plans for Kittson will only fuel further debate, though an Intel spokesman told eWEEK that changes to some of Kittson's characteristics don't mean changes to the road map; the chip is still expected to hit the market within two to three years.

Poulson is a good chip—it brought significant improvements in such areas as energy efficiency and scalability—and Kittson will be, too, he said, declining to elaborate on any plans for Itanium after Kittson. He also noted that Intel engineers could continue to make improvements to the platform even at 32nm, and that Kittson's socket compatibility with Poulson will make upgrading easier for end users.

Intel and HP engineers began developing Itanium in the 1990s, with the idea that the processor would become the de facto 64-bit platform. That changed when rival Advanced Micro Devices in 2003 unveiled Opteron, a 64-bit x86 chip. Since then, Intel has built up the capabilities of its Xeon line, pushing Itanium into more of a niche role for particular high-end workloads and competing with the likes of IBM's Power systems.

The future of Itanium came into the spotlight again in 2011, when Oracle in 2011 announced it would no longer support the platform in its enterprise software, including its databases. Oracle executives said they had learned from Intel engineers that the chip maker was planning to end development of Itanium, drawing a sharp rebuke from both HP and Intel officials who said the chip's road map stretched out through the decade.

HP, which has based its high-end Business Critical Systems—including its Integrity and NonStop servers—on Itanium, sued Oracle, claiming the move breached its agreement to support technologies shared by their 140,000 or so joint customers. A judge last year agreed with HP and ordered Oracle to continue porting its software to Itanium.