Dell takes close look at Itanium 2

Dell Computer Corp. this week confirmed that it will start shipping servers built with Intel Corp.’s Itanium 2 chips, altering what has been at best a lukewarm stance on the chip.

Despite being one of Intel’s biggest partners, Dell had declined to say whether or not it would bring out a server based on the new Itanium 2 chip, citing a small number of sales for these types of systems for its reluctance. The 64-bit Itanium chip, however, has started to show signs of life in the high performance computing market, which appears to have nudged Dell toward picking up the chip.

“Yes, we do now have an Itanium 2-based PowerEdge server on our roadmap,” said Bruce Anderson, a spokesperson at Dell. “It’s not a matter of if but when. Customer demand up to this point has not been broad, but we have seen renewed interest in the last six months on high performance clusters for this type of product.”

Anderson declined to provide any other details on the system at this time.

Dell’s major rival Hewlett-Packard Co. has been the most vocal Itanium supporter, as HP looks for the chip to replace its 64-bit PA-RISC and Alpha chips. IBM Corp. has also made a late entry to the Itanium 2 party with its servers based on the processor expected to be announced this year.

The Itanium processor is Intel’s answer for high-end servers that power the most demanding applications in both the scientific community and business world. While the chip has shown strong performance in benchmarks, it still lacks much of the software needed for it to truly challenge the RISC (reduced instruction set computing)-based servers from HP, IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., according to analysts.

In particular, the absence of a 64-bit operating system from Microsoft Corp. is a key piece of missing software that was likely the main reason Dell delayed its Itanium 2 servers, according to Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., in Nashua, N.H.

“That has been one of the issues for Dell given that they are very much a volume player,” Haff said. “Part of their calculation was certainly, ‘Hmm, the OS that we sell the vast bulk of our systems on isn’t available.'”

Microsoft this week said that its 64-bit Windows .Net Server 2003 operating system has been delayed yet again and will not arrive until April of next year. Dell may wait until the release of the OS to bring out its Itanium 2 servers, Haff said.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see something rolling out at that time, but it makes sense for them to lay the ground work now,” Haff said.

In addition to Itanium, Dell has also been rumoured to be looking at Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s 64-bit server processor code-named Opteron.

“We are very encouraged to see the innovations that are going on, not only by our current supplier but also future, potential suppliers,” Michael Dell, chairman and chief executive officer at Dell, told IDG News Service earlier this year.

A high ranking executive at a Dell partner has said, on condition of anonymity, that Dell will likely ship an Opteron-based server manufactured by Newisys Inc. Both Newisys and Dell are based in Austin, Tex.

“I don’t think there is anything to keep Dell from doing both,” Haff said.