Dell joins Itanium fray

When Dell Computer Corp. launches a product you know a technology has come of age. The company today launched its Intel Corp. Itanium 2-based PowerEdge 3250 server, marking the company’s re-entry into the 64-bit computing market.

Dell joins a throng of vendors, including IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., flying the Itanium flag this week as Intel prepares to unveil on Monday, June 30, the next generation of its Itanium 2 chip, known as Madison.

The Round Rock, Tex.-based company’s first swing at Itanium came in May 2001 when it released the PowerEdge 7150. But the economic downturn and corporate indifference to 64-bit computing saw it skip the following generation of Intel’s McKinley chips.

Now that Dell is back, what’s changed? “We think early adopters are a high-performance compute clustering market,” said Russ Ray, product marketing manager for Dell Servers.

The 2U, dual Intel Itanium 2 processor server comes packed with 16GB of DDRM, Dual internal disk drives with integrated RAID, embedded server management, and Active ID. It also supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS & WS 2.1 and Windows 2003 Enterprise server.

As such, Ray argues the product is ideal for the 3250’s target audience: High Performance Computing Clusters (HPCC). The manufacturing, energy, life sciences, digital media, and financial industries are ready for 64-bit computing for process-intensive applications, he said.

Itanium 2 systems will also run in mainstream enterprise data centres, Ray countered, but applications designed for 64-bit architectures are still lacking. “This is a test case for the Dell standardization curve,” he said, noting enterprise adoption will be slow until Itanium 2 becomes a more standardized offering.

Test units of the PowerEdge 3250’s are already running at select customer locations. Ray would not reveal further details about deployment numbers, saying only that Dell is counting on winning the price/performance battle to expand Itanium 2’s presence in large-scale computing environments. Pricing information was not available prior to the official launch date.

On the operating system front, Ray concedes that Microsoft’s Windows Server 2003 still falls short of meeting the demands of HPCC environments. “Windows is not, in our view, fully there yet,” he said. Dell’s dual Linux and Windows strategy remains, although the company expects more units to ship with a Linux OS. “It’s a matter of time in the chair. Windows has been out for less time that Linux has,” Ray said.

Brooks Gray, an analyst at Technology Biz Research, in Hampton, N.H., does not believe the Itanium announcements by Dell and others will speed the adoption of Itanium, although he agreed that the high-performance computing market is ready.

“There is kind of a crossover point that I see where Itanium and Xeon price performance [figures] cross,” explained Gray. The time is coming soon when the price of a 1.5Ghz Itanium 2 system will deliver more performance than an equally priced 2.8Ghz 32-bit Xeon chip, thus tempting customers.

“Do they feel it’s an absolute requirement to have that 25 per cent performance boost, or will they opt for the nine per cent price performance boost at the Xeon level?” he asked.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP is clearly hoping enterprises will need the performance gain. But even more critical will be the availability of more 64-bit applications.

When it comes to 32-bit Intel-based servers running HP-UX, 99 per cent of HP’s revenue stream comes from packaged application such as Oracle, SAP, and PeopleSoft, said Mark Hudson, vice-president of marketing for HP enterprise storage and servers.

“We view 32-bit as not going away. There are many applications that do not require 64-bit capabilities,” Hudson said, speaking prior to HP’s own Itanium announcement.

But by the same token, Hudson said the company is making steady progress toward encouraging its customers to move from HP’s own PA-RISC and Alpha architectures to Itanium 2.

“You need to look at the bet as a long-term bet. We believe we have placed our chips on the right one,” he said. “When you look at the road map for Itanium you see not just Madison but Deerfield, multi-processors on board next year, so the road map is looking quite promising.”

Hudson said the advent of Itanium 2 is allowing HP to steer more of its R&D into developing that as an industry standard architecture, rather than PA-RISC and Alpha.