Itanium tries again

Despite Intel Corp.’s confidence over the recent launch of Itanium 2, analysts say there are a few hurdles to be cleared before the new 64-bit processors start flying off shelves.

In fact, Itanium is exactly nowhere in the Canadian market so far, said Alan Freedman, Toronto-based research manager for infrastructure hardware with Toronto-based analyst firm IDC Canada

“The first iteration of Itanium was very slow and I don’t think that any of the vendors, including Intel, had very big plans. It was really a test and development release,” Freedman said.

Intel says Itanium 2’s improved capabilities will give it a leg-up into the market for powerful servers and workstations where RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips from Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. currently dominate. But the new design means that software vendors must rewrite operating systems and applications in order to take advantage of the increased performance available.

Since Itanium 2 is intended to get Intel-based servers handling the kinds of large databases and enterprise applications that previously went to mainframes, the company will have to assure users that it can provide high levels of availability and reliability, Freedman said.

But even more importantly, Intel must demonstrate that Itanium’s performance boost is actually significant and doesn’t come with a big increase in management costs, he added. Since IT budgets are tight these days there has to be a compelling business case for a changeover, he said.

“I think it will be a phased approach that customers are going to take. They will start with some fringe applications on Itanium 2, and then grow from there rather than replace their existing infrastructure,” Freedman said.

For Intel the stakes are high. Almost nine out of 10 servers sold today use Intel processors, according to IDC’s U.S. research. But those systems account for only about 40 per cent of server revenue, since the RISC-based servers made by IBM, Sun and HP tend to command higher prices.

Among key improvements, the chip features a large memory cache of up to 3MB which is tightly integrated with the main processor, along with a faster system bus that increases data throughput from 2.1Gbps with the first chip to 6.4Gbps with its successor, said Mike Graf, Intel’s product line manager for Itanium 2.

Hewlett-Packard Co., which is one of Itanium’s biggest backers, recently launched a range of servers, workstations and software built around the Itanium 2. HP has also launched a wide range of software supporting Itanium 2, including Version 1.6 of its HP-UX 11i operating system , Windows Server Management, Linux Server Management and OpenView.

And it is the availability of systems and software solutions that will eventually get Itanium 2 moving in Canada, Freedman said

“[Intel] really needs the 64-bit operating system from Microsoft to come out and it has to be bulletproof. They can’t have it coming out with all kinds of bugs in it. They also need the application support. Right now [supporters] talk about hundreds or thousands of applications – they need a lot more. So what they are really waiting for is ISV (independent software vendor) support,” he said.

Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., agreed that the readiness of Microsoft’s 64-bit software is one of the big questions hanging over Itanium’s future.

“Corporate America is pretty much still running on Windows 2000, and it will take some time for them to get to (Microsoft’s .NET Server operating systems), so that’ll be something of a constraint. Microsoft’s ability to run on those platforms, scaling to eight or 16 processors, has yet to be fully demonstrated,” Brookwood said.

So far, one of the most notable aspects of Intel’s Itanium 2 launch is that it happened, and more or less on time, said Freedman.

“The initial Itanium was something like four years overdue. Itanium 1 was also a different architecture, but this version of Itanium is going to be the architecture going forward, so this is the one where the vendors and Intel expect to eventually see some volumes,” he said.

– With files from IDG News Service