Sources: IBM ditching Itanium altogether

What support Big Blue now has for Intel's processor, in the form of its x455 server, likely will come to an end, sources say.

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Stephen Shankland
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IBM is not only discontinuing support for Intel's Itanium processor in a new generation of server technology, it's going a step further, dropping Itanium servers from the product line altogether, sources familiar with the situation said.

The world's largest server maker, which favors its own Power processor family, has never been enthusiastic about Itanium the way chip co-developer Hewlett-Packard and some other Itanium allies have been. But what support IBM now has, in the form of its x455 server, likely will come to an end.

"IBM told me they had no other plans for any other Itanium systems," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff, citing a discussion with Jay Bretzmann, IBM's manager of product marketing for its xSeries line of Intel-based servers.

Another source familiar with the situation said IBM won't release a server using Intel's next-generation Itanium processor, code-named Montecito and expected to boost performance significantly upon arrival at the end of 2005. Montecito has dual processing engines, or cores, and each core is able to process two simultaneous instruction sequences, called threads.

IBM didn't respond to requests for comment. Intel declined to comment on IBM's product plans.

The move isn't surprising: Intel is aiming Itanium directly at the two prevailing RISC, or reduced instruction set computing, processor designs prevailing in the server market today--Power from IBM and Sparc from Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu.

"It makes official what has really been the reality," Haff said of IBM's Itanium rejection. "They have made it clear...that they really are very serious about making Power into a widely used computer architecture."

IBM remains a major supporter of Intel's Xeon processor, a server-oriented member of the x86 family of chips such as Pentium. The company is building servers that support as many as 32 dual-core Xeon processors--specifically, the "Potomac" version that will include 64-bit features that permit easy use of large amounts of memory.

As first reported by CNET News.com, IBM's new X3 chipset--essential technology that joins processors to each other and to all computer subsystems--supports Intel's Xeon processor, but not Itanium. That's a change from earlier models that could use both processors.

Tom Bradicich, IBM's xSeries chief technology officer, said the decision to drop Itanium support in X3 was because of "the market acceptance of Itanium," or the lack thereof. He also said support could be restored in a next-generation X4 chipset if IBM chooses.

Ceasing chipset development doesn't preclude IBM from selling Itanium servers. But it would need to use a server design from another source--either a comparatively neutral supplier such as Intel or an IBM rival that offers Itanium chipsets: HP, Fujitsu, SGI, NEC, Hitachi or Unisys.

But Intel isn't a likely Itanium chipset source. It had plans for a new chipset code-named Bayshore for Montecito-based Itanium servers, but it canceled those plans in 2004, the company said.

Montecito will still work with Intel's existing 8870 chipset, but that model was introduced in 2002 and lacks support for newer, faster communications technologies such as DDR2, or double data rate 2, memory or PCI Express input-output. Intel will not be updating the 8870, spokeswoman Erica Fields said.