Wither Itanium?

Two years after the launch of AMD’s Opteron processors and its 64-bit extensions to classic x86 architecture, a robust computing ecosystem is finally growing around dual-core 64-bit computing. On the server side, at least.

With Microsoft’s long-awaited shipment of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP Professional x64 Editions, just announced at its WinHEC event, and AMD’s growing list of satisfied customers using its Opteron dual-core CPU for volume needs, the word is spreading about its ability to deliver cheaper, more powerful computing.

So where does that leave vendors that cast their lot with Intel’s competing
Itanium architecture? Recasting their approach.

Granted, the faint praise we recently heard from partner vendors about
Intel’s Itanium came during AMD’s birthday bash to celebrate Opteron’s
two-year-old launch. Although it was all about AMD, it was hard to miss the
message between the lines about Itanium.

We asked Joseph Banas, program director of Linux Clusters for IBM,
about Big Blue’s plans with Itanium in future product releases. Shoulders
slumped, heavy sigh: Yes, IBM has plans to support Itanium, he said in a
downward voice.

“It’s pretty obvious that IBM is not an enthusiastic supporter of
Itanium,” says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst for In-Stat and editor-in-chief
of the research firm’s Microprocessor Report. “Even Dell was less than
happy with Itanium sales and pulled the product for a while.” The volume
market just hasn’t been as compelling a solution with Itanium, he adds.

Even HP, which helped devise the Itanium architecture with Intel, took
flack from journalists when it announced in February that it would join
the x86 extension world with support for AMD’s
Opteron chips in its ProLiant servers. For some customers with high-volume
needs, they’ve been a hit.

Alan Walker, vice president of technology integration for passenger
reservation system giant Sabre , would know.

He’s running the company’s low-fare search applications on dual-core
Opteron chips using about 145 of HP’s ProLiant DL585 four-processor
boxes.

“The things work,” he tells internetnews.com. Put it this way:
throughput on production is north of 1.8 times what he was pulling out of the
Itanium-based servers. The dual-core performance “significantly drives down
the cost of hardware,” not to mention future opportunities to upgrade or buy
more dual-core boxes.

When tens of thousands of travel agencies hit Sabre’s platform, each in
search of, say, some 200 different ways to get to Miami on different days,
from different airports and the like, that’s about half a million lines of
C++ code doing a lot of searching. Opteron’s dual-core ability to process and
scale horizontally and cheaply fits the bill.

Walker says it’s inevitable that the industry is going to shift to
dual-core architecture. Where Sabre’s servers were handling 50 transactions
per second with Itanium, he’s just upped that to 90 per second since
switching to Opteron on ProLiant servers.

He’s still running Itanium four-way servers, only with MySQL.
And he’s not saying the company has tossed Itanium aside. Itanium-based
boxes are powering high-end applications for Sabre, especially in hotels.

And to be fair here, low-fare searches don’t involve the massive floating-point computations of the scientific applications for which Itanium is highly regarded. (Still, even supercomputer maker Cray is selling Opteron-based systems along with its Itanium lines.)

Intel’s goals for Itanium in the volume market have been reduced, even whittled, notes In-Stat’s Krewell. The reality for Itanium is that many
enterprise customers are happy in volume servers, especially for 1-way,
2-way and 4-way servers using Intel’s Xeon and AMD’s Opteron. Plus, x86
architecture is cost-effective for businesses right now.

Wither Itanium? The bloom may be waning, but it’s not entirely off the
rose.

After all, the 64-bit ecosystem is ripe for servers right now, more so
than an expected messier shift on the client side, with all its different
drivers and operating system needs. (We’ll see how messy with Intel’s launch
of its first dual-core desktop CPU, the Pentium Extreme Edition 840.)

Sure, the 64-bit ecosystem is on a growth spurt thanks to Microsoft and
IBM seeding the world with server-side product support. But like any
evolution, it’s a chaotic change with gaps to fill, such as supporting
64-bit applications from major software vendors.

Who among us hasn’t run into an e-mail meltdown in Outlook because we’ve
been capped out on how much memory it can serve and for how many users?
That’s why, for Krewell’s money, he’d like to see Microsoft’s Exchange
Server be the first thing Redmond pushes out of the gate to help the 64-bit
world thrive.

Still, there’s no doubt Intel is rethinking the volume strategy that it
devised when Itanium hit the market. (Intel was not available to respond to
queries about Itanium’s strategy.)

Krewell says by 2007, Itanium’s world will evolve again when the CPU is slated
to move to a new platform design that it will share with its more successful
Xeon line. “Then we will see a whole lot more innovation. But for now,
they’ve got to break free from the existing bottleneck they’ve got.”

Erin Joyce is executive editor of internetnews.com.

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