Microsoft uses Longhorn to promote Itanium

Redmond commits to selling an Itanium edition of the forthcoming Longhorn Server, as part of a renewed marketing effort with Intel.

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4 min read
Microsoft has committed to selling an Itanium edition of its forthcoming Longhorn Server, part of a renewed marketing effort for Windows on the high-end processor that Intel and Microsoft plan to begin Monday.

The vast majority of Windows operating systems run on mainstream x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron. Because Itanium is largely incompatible and not nearly as widely used, support for it has been a lower priority for Microsoft.

That's starting to change, as Microsoft comes around to the way Intel and its chief Itanium ally, Hewlett-Packard, see the world. Like them, Microsoft wants to use Itanium to tackle the "big iron" part of the server market--massive multiprocessor machines running demanding and crucial tasks.

"Our position has not been as clear here as much as it should be," Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Windows Server Division, said in an interview. "We have a commitment to Xeon, but also very much to Itanium."

Part of that commitment involves releasing Longhorn Server for the processor in 2007, Muglia said, which is the same year the x86 version is expected. Another part is a multicity tour called Route64 to tout advantages of 64-bit processing.

Another part of Microsoft's commitment will be buying 1,600 Itanium servers from HP. "I would say it's the most positive that we've been, ever really, since the start of Itanium," said Rich Marcello, senior vice president of HP's Business Critical Server group.

By comparison, the Itanium agenda earlier hadn't even included discussions with Microsoft about Longhorn Server, Marcello said. "We had not gotten around to the conversation," he said.

Itanium has 64-bit extensions that permit the processor to easily use more than 4GB of memory. That feature appeals to Scott Erkonen, managing officer of networking at Premier Bank Card, who runs business-intelligence tasks on an HP Integrity server with 12 Itanium processors and 24GB of memory. Until upgrading an earlier Xeon system to an Itanium machine, the company was having trouble keeping up with demands in loading, processing and extracting useful information, he said.

Itanium's 64-bit nature isn't as much of a differentiation now that Xeon and Opteron have become available with the 64-bit extensions. Microsoft and Intel plan to include these newer x86 models in their promotional activities, too.

For example, the companies plan to publish information on Monday that they say shows that many programs get a boost with an imminent 64-bit version of Windows for x86 chips. For example, a copy of SAP's business software can accommodate 18 percent more users, and Microsoft's Active Directory software for tracking computer users and privileges works twice as fast, according to the information.

Microsoft also has a suite of 64-bit server programs planned for 2005 and 2006.

Trials and travails
Microsoft has long yearned for the plump profits and prestigious customers of the big iron market, but it's been tough convincing them that Microsoft has what it takes to run servers that must stay up and running without fail.

"Our traditional partner channels and Microsoft don't have the experience base working with the customers who have that set of needs," Muglia said.

Microsoft has some incentive to push Windows on Itanium: competition with Linux. Fujitsu announced new 32-processor Itanium servers last week--but for customer demand reasons, it's releasing models with Linux first in June, with Windows support to follow in September.

Intel, too has had its hardships. It missed its 2004 Itanium shipment goal, but things are looking up now, said Abhi Talkwalkar, senior vice president of Intel's Digital Enterprise Group. "Our first quarter was very strong as it pertains to Itanium," he said. And the chipmaker is eagerly awaiting the release of Montecito models at the end of 2005.

And even with a substantial Montecito performance boost showing up in new systems such as HP's Arches-based servers, some are still skeptical. Itanium arrived years late, IBM has cooled its support, and Intel has had trouble drumming up customers even with today's much less ambitious Itanium goals.

Itanium so far has been most successful as a replacement for HP's PA-RISC chips, which run its HP-UX version of Unix. HP's Itanium-based Integrity systems are chiefly used to run HP-UX, the company said, with only about 18 percent of shipments used with Windows and 12 percent with Linux.

Microsoft in 2004 canceled a workstation version of Windows for Itanium after HP canceled its workstation. But the companies now believe they've found their niche in specific high-end markets such as financial services and manufacturing that can make use of Microsoft's SQL Server database software.

Microsoft plans Itanium versions of SQL Server 2005, its .Net Framework 2005 and Visual Studio 2005, but not much else. The company is trying to encourage Itanium support from other software companies, though. "What we expect to see over the next 12 to 24 months is a set of really critical customer applications moving onto Windows and the Itanium platform," Muglia said.

HP expects Microsoft might expand its own software in the future, though. "The next logical thing to get on Integrity would be an Exchange implementation. I think that will be coming sometime down the road," Marcello said.