Itanium Aims for the Mainstream

The Intel Itanium processor has enjoyed a comfortable niche in the mission-critical, high-performance market. But a collection of hardware, operating system and app vendors who are banking on the platform wants to see it move out of that small, albeit vital spot.

The Itanium Solutions Alliance (ISA) said it’s enjoying growing membership and app support, noting that year-over-year sales are increasing while other architectures, including x86, have contracted recently.

Asia has proven particularly strong, with Japan up 29 percent and the rest of Asia up 40 percent. Japan has three huge vendors in Hitachi, NEC and Fujitsu pushing Itanium, Joan Jacobs, president and executive director of the ISA, told At the same time, the rest of Asia is a big proponent of big iron systems like Itanium and mainframes, she said.

With the growing number of apps and partner firms – Rackable appears poised to take the place of SGI, since Rackable is in the final stages of acquiring what’s left of SGI – the ISA wants to move from Itanium’s niche markets into a broader market.

“We’ve switched focus from highly vertical markets to a more horizontal approach,” Jacobs said. “We’re looking at several areas that are a sweet spot for partner vendors.”

Those spots include datacenter modernization and consolidation, mission critical tasks and computational-intensive tasks.

However, Clay Ryder, president of the Sageza Group, thinks the company may find its toughest competitor to be Intel’s Xeon, since it has more than enough capability.

“If I’m going to deploy a basic server, I’m just going to go with a Xeon,” he said. Itanium will be good for Itanium customers who are already in a buying mood, he added. “In the verticals they are going after, it will allow them to broaden the sale to offer additional units. To just sell to the broad, horizontal market, they will have to have a compelling TCO argument, and I haven’t seen the numbers to say here’s the compelling TCO statement to come out ahead.”

Jacobs responds that Nehalem “is a little unproven. Itanium has been out there a long time and has been shaken out and proven itself. Nehalem is a great technology but it will be a while before it has proven itself.”

The Itanium has been on the market since 2001 as a joint development between Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) and HP (NYSE: HPQ). HP remains the most prominent hardware OEM to support Itanium, which has found a home as an alternative to mainframes in high-availability, mission-critical systems. Its architecture is considerably different from the x86 architecture, with emphasis on reliability, availability and scalability (RAS) that’s a must-have in the mission-critical world.

Intel releases new Itanium processors much more slowly and deliberately than it does with its x86 line, since the markets Itanium sells into dislike constant change. The next generation Itanium, the quad-core “Tukwila” line, is due this summer.

Despite initially slow sales, being shunned by IBM and Dell, and all the “Itanic” jokes over the years, Itanium is seeing steady and increasing momentum. Year-over-year, Itanium-based system shipments increased 18 percent in 2008 and it has enjoyed seven straight quarters of more than $1 billion in revenues.

It also has vital support on the operating system side with Novell SLES 11, the company’s enterprise version of Linux, with a version for Itanium, and Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 R2 will include dedicated Itanium features, as will the next version of SQL Server, codenamed “Kilimanjaro.”

Jacobs said the ISA is trying to grow the community as “a clearing house of information” for the Itanium by joining the usual suspects of social networks: Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

She said that while the application vendor support grows, there are still some holes, in particular security applications are lacking.

“So we have pieces of the server market, but I would like to see more on board,” Jacobs said.

Sageza’s Ryder said the Novell support will be a boost for Itanium trying to go broader market. “Novell has a bunch of middleware and branch office software to make communications work better. That’s a plus for them, because it lets them be more generic and horizontal in some usage areas,” he said.

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