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Oracle declares Intel's Itanium dead

The software and server company says Intel itself maintains that the server chip family is "nearing the end of its life," though Intel and Hewlett-Packard say Oracle is dead wrong.

A wafer of Itanium 9300 processors
A wafer of Itanium 9300 processors Intel

Oracle has signed the death certificate for Intel's Itanium chips, saying that none other than Intel has decided to end the high-end processor family.

The old software giant and new server maker announced yesterday that it has "decided to discontinue all software development on the Intel Itanium microprocessor." After several discussions, Oracle said, "Intel management made it clear that their strategic focus is on their x86 microprocessor and that Itanium was nearing the end of its life."

Nonsense, said Intel Chief Executive Paul Otellini in a reply today.

"Intel's work on Intel Itanium processors and platforms continues unabated with multiple generations of chips currently in development and on schedule," he said. "We remain firmly committed to delivering a competitive, multi-generational roadmap for HP-UX and other operating system customers that run the Itanium architecture."

The next code name in the Itanium road map after its present Tukwila model is Poulson, an eight-core chip that Intel promises will double Tukwila performance, and after that comes Kittson, which is in active development. Intel said it plans to detail Itanium momentum at the upcoming Intel Developer Forum in Beijing.

HP, too, said erstwhile ally Oracle's statement was an "action of disinformation [that's] clearly an attempt to force customers into purchasing Sun servers in a desperate move to slow their declining market share." HP has a 10-year road map for Itanium servers and its HP-UX version of Unix, and boasted that the line has bumped Oracle's Sparc-Solaris servers into third place in the Unix market.

"Oracle continues to show a pattern of anti-customer behavior as they move to shore up their failing Sun server business," said Dave Donatelli, executive vice president and general manager, Enterprise Servers, Storage and Networking, HP. "We are shocked that Oracle would put enterprises and governments at risk while costing them hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity in a shameless gambit to limit fair competition."

Oracle's move spotlights how significantly the server market has changed in recent years.

In 2006, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said, "There is no more important platform for Oracle than HP and Itanium."

Oracle, of course, has its own server lines now after acquiring Sun Microsystems last year, and those servers use mainstream x86 chips and the Sun-spawned Sparc family of processors. And today is the day that Itanium ally Hewlett-Packard holds its first shareholder meeting with new Chief Executive Lee Apotheker. Although HP continues to put Itanium chips into new server products, Oracle went out of its way to say "Apotheker made no mention of Itanium in his long and detailed presentation on the future strategic direction of HP."

The Itanium processor family got its start at Hewlett-Packard in the 1980s, but the company decided it would be better for a high-volume manufacturer to bring it to market, so Itanium became the product line with which Intel hoped to lead the charge to 64-bit processing.

But a series of problems derailed the plan. Software written for Intel's dominant x86 chip family wouldn't run on Itanium chips. The first Itanium chip, Merced, was so late and slow that it became a mere device to test software. The formerly broad support among server makers steadily dwindled, and software makers including Red Hat and Microsoft dropped support for Itanium, largely leaving only HP-UX. The present Tukwila generation of Itanium was beset by delays, too, and instead of becoming the server market's "unifying architecture," spanning many server lines and operating systems, it's been relegated to a high-end niche.

Perhaps most significantly, x86 processors--including the competitive 64-bit Opteron models from AMD--improved in performance and popularity. Some high-end features formerly only in Itanium chips, such as machine check architecture, have made their way into Intel's increasingly powerful Xeon line of x86 server processors.

Meanwhile, Intel faces powerful threats in the low-end, high-volume mobile market, where processors from a number of companies based on ARM's chip designs dominate among the fast-growing, high-profile array of smartphones and tablets.

Updated 9:23 a.m. PT and 12:06 p.m. PT with comment from Intel and HP, respectively.