Slow road to 64-bit success

18 Aug 2005

According to the old show business adage, it takes years to make an overnight success. Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Intel, collaborators in developing the Itanium processor, are hoping the same holds true for their 64-bit chip.

Now at the second level of its development (and accordingly called Itanium 2), the processor is being positioned as suitable for the space where high-end Unix and mainframe systems have previously held court. At a recent press briefing in Dublin, Chris Ingle, senior consultant with the EMEA systems group at IDC, gave credence to that hope. He showed market research indicating a decline of RISC and Unix systems, with Itanium-based servers gaining market share at their expense.

This migration is by no means a stampede, however; customers with serious computing infrastructure are reluctant to make change for change’s sake, a fact that applies just as much in the Irish market, Paul Marnane of HP Ireland’s technology solutions group remarked.

These days, with server consolidation and open standards the name of the game, the last thing any customer wants is to feel they are being locked in to yet another proprietary system. Ingle said this won’t be the case as Itanium can run multiple operating systems (OSs). “It is a multi-platform product — very different from other mid-range products that are generally restricted to one or two,” he pointed out. “Another strength that’s not as well promoted is its reliability.”

Ingle said renewing IT infrastructure is now a business priority, as is the need to find the most cost-effective long-term solution for new and existing applications. So far, at least, uptake of Itanium systems has been slow; while that remains the case, HP and Intel will have a job on their hands convincing software developers to write for the platform, which further adds to customer reluctance to change in the short term.

Intel is also in the slightly tricky position of competing with itself, in a way; its own Xeon processor has 64-bit extensions, leading some to believe servers running the much cheaper Xeon chips may well do the job for many applications.

Joachim Aertebjerg, Itanium marketing manager for Intel EMEA, acknowledged that there may be some overlap between the two chips, but he pointed to the ability to upgrade and scale with Itanium, as well as its reliability — a critical factor where serious computing applications are needed. “Itanium is engineered to be the best at handling large data sets: database management, enterprise resource planning [ERP] — that’s where the architecture shines,” he said. “It’s not going to replace Pentium machines, it’s going to replace architectures that have existed for decades now.”

Horst Kanert of HP’s Business Critical Systems division, said Itanium servers could now run Windows as one of the OSs. He claimed customers had been waiting for Windows to scale to this level of computing power and said new benchmarking tests put the price/performance level “close to Unix or higher”.

HP has undertaken more than 1,000 projects in Europe that involve running Windows on Itanium, under the Integrity brand name, since 2003. “The sweet spot is we’re running Itaniums where 64-bit is really needed and take the 32-bit applications where there still are some.”

Kanert said that an advantage was that it could run the same management software across all the platforms on the server. “It’s
one view for the customer. With Windows Server 2003 and Integrity Servers we’re playing in the Champions League.”

In addition, final test and development of Microsoft’s upcoming Longhorn OS will be done on Itanium. The software maker’s SQL 2005 will also run on Itanium and Kanert was keen to position it as an enterprise-class product, calling it “a full-blown business intelligence tool, not just a database”.

Aertebjerg added: “The market for high-end servers is transforming, similar to what happened with PCs in the Eighties and volume
servers in the mid-Nineties. Some transformation is hitting the [high-end] server market right now. Customers are not happy about being locked in to proprietary systems. They want choice. We engineered the Itanium platform to address that, to be an open architecture. That’s where things are going, but it’s going to be a long-term transition.”

Bosses back Itanium. Pictured from left were: Martin Murphy, general manager of Hewlett-Packard Ireland; Jim O’Hara, general manager of Intel Ireland; and Joe Macri, general manager of Microsoft Ireland

By Gordon Smith