With the quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium processors coming out sometime around the middle of this year, the Itanium Solutions Alliance, the consortium of hardware and software vendors that peddle Itanium-based products, has dusted off the Itanium drum and begun banging on it.
If there is one thing that you can probably say about processor architectures here in early 2009, it is that Itanium and Sparc have been for years tied for the position as the next chip to go, but this has changed. Sun Microsystems' declining fortunes and impending acquisition by Oracle probably makes the future of Itanium, relative to Sparc at least, seem somewhat rosy.
But this is a bit like the old joke about bears: Itanium only has to outrun Sun if it wants to keep from being eaten by the grizzly, but when and if that happens - and I know all about Oracle's internal pep talk about how it will keep Sun's hardware business going, which it has to do in the short-term but most certainly does not need to do in the long term - Itanium will be the next thing that the bear eats before it gets to IBM's Power architecture.
If Itanium wants to outlive Power, what Intel and HP really need to pray for is that the x64 chip takes away all those game console deals from Big Blue. They need embedded x64 chips, like the Atom, to take off as an alternative to embedded PowerPC chips, too. IBM better stop and tie its sneakers if it wants to outrun that grizzly.
This morning, the Itanium Solutions Alliance put out a statement with some vague numbers showing the strength of the Itanium server platform in 2008. By IDC's reckoning of the server space in the fourth quarter, shipments of Itanium-based machines rose by 18 per cent and it was the seventh straight quarter of sales that crested above $1bn for the Itanium server category.
Data from Gartner's report covering 2008's server sales indicated that Itanium machines outgrew RISC-based alternatives in terms of sales and shipments, growing share in each category.
"While the server business is certainly mired in difficult times, the multifaceted community that surrounds Itanium-based systems has special cause for optimism," said Joan Jacobs, president and executive director of the Itanium Solutions Alliance, in a statement released this morning before anyone on the West coast of the States was awake to field any questions.
She continued: "Even as the performance and scalability of x86 architectures make great progress, the inherent strengths of Itanium-based technology will continue to prove irreplaceable for mission-critical enterprise workloads, including large-scale databases and data warehousing; for the inevitable migration away from costly mainframes; and for intensive applications that rely on parallel processing, large memories and complicated algorithms."
The irony, of course, is that HP partnered with Intel to create a broader, more modern, 64-bit chip architecture that everyone would inevitably move to, and what Itanium has been relegated to is exactly the same market niche that IBM's mainframes and, to a certain extent its i-based Power Systems proprietary midrange computers, have been pushed into.
In a blog posting, Eddie Toh, the platform marketing manager at Intel's Asia/Pacific operations based in Singapore, said that Itanium had eclipsed Sparc in the region based on IDC data. Toh said that Itanium system revenue in the AP region was up 40 per cent in 2008, while Power-based systems only saw 4 per cent revenue growth and Sparc sales fell by 19 per cent.
Worldwide, Toh added, Itanium "systems" grew by 18 percent (presumably he meant shipments, matching the above cited data, and presumably for the full year, not the fourth quarter only), while Power server shipments fell by 22 per cent and Sparc shipments fell by 10 per cent.
HP to the rescue!
IDC and Gartner don't normally break Itanium server shipments and sales out as a separate category, so you have to infer how well or poorly Itanium is doing by using Hewlett-Packard as a kind of yardstick. And if you have watched HP over the years, the transition from the collection of PA-RISC, Alpha, and NonStop servers to a converged Itanium-based Integrity platform has seen a slight decline in sales.
What I mean is that as sales of those older systems have contracted, Integrity sales have risen, but not enough to offset the declines. In the fourth quarter, by IDC's reckoning, HP's sales of RISC and EPIC (that's the shorthand name for the Itanium instruction set) servers fell by 11 per cent to $1.42bn, while IBM's sales of Power Systems (including machines that run AIX, Linux, or i) fell by 10 per cent to $2.48bn. Sun's RISC server sales (it doesn't do Itanium) fell by 18 per cent to $1.08bn. The remaining RISC+EPIC server sales amounted to $325m in sales, down 26 per cent, with Bull doing both Power and Itanium boxes and Fujitsu doing both Sparc and Itanium boxes and NEC peddling Itanium.
If money matters more than shipments, that doesn't exactly seem like a position of strength for Itanium if HP's numbers are any guide (assuming that the vast majority of RISC+EPIC sales at HP were for Itanium boxes). Moreover, Sun abandoned Itanium before it even shipped (perhaps one of the smart things Sun did during the dot-com bust) and IBM and Dell dumped Itanium years ago.
Unisys has all-but abandoned Itanium processors, and in the wake of its acquisition of the IT business of Siemens, Fujitsu has been pretty clear that its x64-based Primergy line is going to be primary in Europe, with Sparc and mainframes getting honorable mentions and no one saying much about the PrimeQuest Itanium boxes. NEC is still committed to Itanium, and Bull seems to be, too, but that still leaves HP as its main champion.
The alliance wanted to point out that there are some 14,000 applications available on Itanium, provided you double, triple, or even quadruple count those software programs as they are compatible with HP-UX, the Linuxes from Red Hat and Novell, Windows, OpenVMS, or NonStop. (I would guess that there are only several thousand unique applications on the Itanium platform once you stop the multiple counting.)
Itanium enthusiasts are particularly jazzed about Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 11 supporting Itanium and the upcoming R2 release of Windows Server 2008 Itanium Edition that will scale across 256 threads, along with the future "Kilimanjaro" SQL Server release, which will also span 256 threads. The current Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server are both limited to 64 threads.
The real question is not whether Itanium has a future as an HP-UX and Windows database server, but if the future eight-core "Nehalem EX" Xeon 7500s will basically eat all of the business when they ship later this year or early next.
A four-socket Nehalem EX machine pack 64 threads and will cost a lot less than an equivalently powerful Itanium machine. And that probably means Itanium will be pushed up into an even tighter niche of customers who want more than 64 threads to run databases. Unless you are HP-UX customers, in which case you won't have a choice but to buy Integrity boxes. HP has said again and again it has no intention of porting HP-UX to x64 chips. ®