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At Unisys, Intel's Itanium chip is dead

Unisys may have written Itanium's epitaph--at least for many server vendors.

Unisys may have written Itanium's epitaph on Wednesday--at least for some of the largest server vendors.

Colin Lacey, vice president of Systems and Storage at Unisys, discussed in a phone interview why Unisys--one of the top 10 U.S. server vendors--doesn't see a future for Itanium, including the long-delayed quad-core Itanium "Tukwila" processor.

Lacey said Itanium's appeal has almost vanished for many vendors in server industry. "It's appeal has certainly narrowed down. It's almost exclusively down to a single vendor," he said, referring to Hewlett-Packard. "The current shipping platform is overdue for a technology refresh (and) it's been delayed a couple of times already," he said. In short, Itanium's chronic delays and underwhelming performance mean it's not a viable option anymore for Unisys--which offered Itanium-based servers in the past.

Lacey went on to say that Xeon can be "harnessed" in a high-end server environment to deliver performance that surpasses Itanium with the same reliability. Unisys announced on Wednesday that its newest enterprise server--the ES7000 Model 7600R--has set a record for price/performance in the Transaction Processing Performance Council's (TPC) TPC-H benchmark test. "The performance of the Unisys server, which uses the latest Intel Xeon 6-core processors, shows the increasing superiority of Xeon-based systems for mission-critical applications such as business intelligence over those based on Intel Itanium processors." the Blue Bell, Penn.-based company said in a statement.

Unisys' comments uncannily echo a statement made more than 10 years ago (in 1998) by an analyst who was discussing the long-delayed "Merced" chip--the processor jointly developed by HP and Intel that eventually became Itanium. At that time, an analyst said, "if the performance is similar to Merced," server vendors will opt to "squeeze more profit out of Xeon" instead of adopting Itanium.

Lacey spelled out how Unisys did its testing. "It's not like we're loading the dice. I know that Itanium has only two processors, but the configurations we're comparing have exactly the same number of processor cores. We're comparing 64-core to 64-core. There is no compute engine deficit between one and the other. So, it's looking at the architecture and what works."

With latest generation of Xeon technology "we can deliver pretty compelling raw performance as well as a very significant cost reduction by migrating over to a Xeon architecture. We're talking about a Windows SQL database environment and there's no real pain, if you will, from doing that on Itanium to doing that on Xeon," he said.

At Unisys, there is no significant difference in reliability either, one of Itanium's purported marquee features. "We track the unplanned downtime of our customer base and we track pretty much identical results between Xeon and Itanium architectures with respect to downtime. We don't see any material difference whatsoever and we keep very detailed tracking on that," he said.

Intel, on the other hand, believes both processors offer distinct advantages. "Both platforms offer unique advantages for different needs and applications," Intel spokesman Patrick Ward said Wednesday. "It's great that Unisys is being so aggressive with Xeon's price/performance strengths. Itanium offers terrific scalability and reliability strengths that are a better fit for some of the most mission critical workloads," he added.

Jointly, HP and Intel, not surprisingly, have a different take on Itanium's value for the large enterprise customer. In this video, Intel CEO Paul Otellini and HP CEO Mark Hurd discuss the technology. "Itanium is our architecture for enterprise-class machines. And that's a big segment of the market. About $28 billion. This is a very, very critical architecture for us," Otellini said in the video. "There are things that we're putting into the architecture, the RAS (Reliability, Availability and Serviceability) features, the reliability characteristics, the power-performance characteristics. These are things that we're tuning for the enterprise at the highest end," he said.

"The alliance around Itanium is also unique," Otellini continued. "Multiple operating system environments; 13,000 applications. It's outgrown every other mainframe architecture on the planet over the last five years," he said. "Itanium is about 10 years old now. It's really hitting its stride. It's at the point where we outsell other architectures in Asia. (Sun Microsystems) SPARC and (IBM) Power-based machines," Otellini said. "There are over a thousand silicon engineers at Intel working on this product line," he added.

More details on the Unisys test results can be found in the Unisys February 18 news release.