Tech Industry

Itanium allies to pool development efforts

Server makers are forming alliance to try to ease customer adoption of systems using Intel chip, CNET has learned.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.
Many companies backing Intel's Itanium processor are planning to announce a new alliance in September to try to make it easier for customers to adopt systems using the high-end chip, CNET has learned.

The group, called the Itanium Solutions Alliance, has several plans to make Itanium more useful, said a source involved with the outfit. The alliance will sponsor porting events to help programmers bring their software to the processor, set up porting centers where such work can take place and create catalogs so customers in specific industries can find combinations of Itanium hardware and software for various tasks.

In addition to Intel and Hewlett-Packard--the co-developer of Itanium and the top seller of Itanium servers--the alliance includes server makers NEC, SGI, Unisys, Hitachi, Fujitsu and Bull, and software makers Microsoft, Red Hat, Novell, Oracle, SAP and SAS, the source said.


What's new:
A new alliance of server makers has been formed to ease customer adoption of Intel's Itanium processor.

Bottom line:
The move is the latest step in a years-long effort to get the processor to catch on.

More stories on Itanium

The alliance is a new step in a years-long effort to encourage broad Itanium use and is an indication of just how much effort its backers are willing to put into getting the processor to catch on. But some believe the effort is late.

"It sure would have been nice to have this several years ago," Sageza Group analyst Clay Ryder said. "What happened here is Intel seriously underestimated the support the marketplace would have for an incompatible platform and believed 'if we (Intel) say it's industry standard, everybody will come.' Clearly that didn't happen."

Intel and HP declined to comment for this report. However, Intel spokeswoman Erica Fields said the chipmaker has been working hard to attract hardware and software partners and now there are more than 5,000 software applications and five operating systems available for Itanium.

There are plenty of companies selling and buying Itanium-related products, but not nearly the number Intel and HP projected when the chip was under development in the 1990s.

Itanium's rocky past
The chip's debut this decade was marred by delays, low initial performance and incompatibility with software for x86 processors such as Pentium and Xeon, which are vastly more widely used. In 2004, Intel missed Itanium shipment goals and HP scrapped its Itanium workstation. In 2005, IBM backed off plans to sell its own Itanium servers.

In response to the troubles, Intel redefined Itanium as a chip chiefly intended for high-end multiprocessor servers, models that today usually use RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors such as IBM's Power, Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc, Fujitsu's Sparc64 and HP's PA-RISC.

In line with that high-end positioning, Microsoft's planned update to its Windows Server 2003 operating system--called R2--won't be available for Itanium. Microsoft's rationale for the move is that R2 is geared toward smaller servers. The Window Server 2003 successor due in 2007, code-named Longhorn Server, will support Itanium, however.

Itanium hasn't yet reached heir-apparent status by most estimates. HP--the server maker that has pushed the chip most aggressively--sold $287 million in Itanium-based Unix servers in the second quarter of 2005, compared with $778 million in the PA-RISC-based Unix servers they're intended to replace, according to Gartner figures.

But Intel has convinced Unisys, NEC, SGI, Fujitsu and Hitachi to join HP in designing mammoth Itanium systems and bringing them to the market.

"The industry has lined up--all but one--with Itanium as the platform of choice for RISC replacement and mainframe platforms for the future," Pat Gelsinger, general manager of Intel's digital enterprise group, said last week at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The lone holdout Gelsinger referred to is IBM, whose Power processor is the second horse in what Intel likes to call a two-horse race, but it should be noted that Sun also shuns Itanium in favor of high-end systems built around Sparc processors.

Intel's Itanium plans still extend years into the future. Next up will be a model code-named Montecito, due to be released by the end of this year. It employs dual processing engines called cores, an approach already used by high-end server chips from Sun, HP and IBM.

"Montecito will deliver a huge step up in performance, more than doubling the performance capabilities of today's Madison family of products," Gelsinger said last week.

After Montecito comes a close relative called Montvale, in 2006. Then in 2007, Intel plans to introduce a four-core Itanium called Tukwila, a design that will be succeeded by another four-core chip, code-named Poulson.

For years, one of Itanium's advantages over Xeon was a 64-bit architecture that permitted easy use of vast amounts of memory. Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron brought that feature to x86 processors in 2003, though, and Intel followed suit with 64-bit Xeons in 2004.

The Xeons have the advantage because they run the vast amount of software already available for x86 processors such as Pentium. But efforts to expand the pool of available software should help Itanium's prospects, Ryder said.

"Most people do not buy systems because of floating-point performance, (and) the war for basic processing capability is largely over. There's more than enough for most people," Ryder said. "They buy systems based on applications."


Correction: This story included incorrect figures for Hewlett-Packard's Itanium server revenue in the second quarter of 2005. The company sold $287 million in Itanium-based Unix servers, compared with $778 million in PA-RISC-based Unix servers.