Itanium Group Aims for Mainframes

Despite RISC-based systems accounting for just a fraction of the server market, it remains a growth sector, and the Itanium Solutions Alliance (ISA) is pushing forward with new hardware based on the first quad-core Itanium processors due next year.

Codenamed Tukwila, the quad-core Itanium will be a huge chip, with more than two billion transistors. Thanks to four cores, two on-die memory controllers, a 30 MB L2 cache and the new QuickPath Interconnect interface, Tukwila-based systems will more than double the performance of existing systems.

“You’d want to see a doubling of performance when going from two to four cores, but we’re seeing more than a doubling,” said Rob Shiveley, worldwide marketing manager in the mission critical server platform group at Intel (NASDAQ: INTC). “This is due in part to the Quickpath Interconnects and the on-die memory controllers. Any time you can move the memory controller into the processor you’re going to get better performance.”

Intel will begin sending Tukwila systems to OEM customers in the fourth quarter to begin testing and eventual product release next year. This will be the first version shrunk to 65nm. It will sport a number of unique features not seen in the better-selling Xeon, like hardware and software reliability checking.

With these new features, Intel and its OEM partners, who constitute the Itanium Solutions Alliance along with software vendors and resellers, are making the pitch for the Itanium machine as a mainframe replacement. This effort is taking place more overseas than in the U.S., where Itanium is growing far more rapidly.

According to IDC stats, Itanium product sales only grew by nine percent in North America in 2007 but 56.3 percent in Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA) and 45 percent in the Asia-Pacific region. Shiveley credited this to the competitive nature of the U.S. market and those areas being relatively new, “green fields.”

The campaign, targeting banks first in APAC and the Middle East, will involve pitching Itanium systems running any number of operating systems, including Windows and Linux, as cheaper alternatives to a mainframe but equally reliable.

“Banking was a good target for many reasons. There’s a lot of pressure on the financial markets. A lot of financial companies around the world, because of how subprime problem got repackaged and sold overseas, are looking for ways to cut their costs,” said Shiveley.

In one instance, a company moved from an SAP system on an IBM zSeries mainframe to an Itanium system running Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2005. Hardware, software and migration costs were $6.1 million, with a total savings over four years of $24.8 million, making for an annual cost reduction by 71 percent and $7.7 million per year.

“We focus primarily on the economic arguments with the customer,” said Jon Jacob, outbound marketing manager for business critical systems at HP (NYSE: HPQ), a major Itanium supporter and seller. “Overall, the value and prices are significantly better with Itanium systems than mainframe systems.”

And he said HP’s systems can match a zSeries for its most famous attribute, reliability. “Our engineers tell me that our Integrity NonStop systems have better availability and uptime than a mainframe,” he said.

The main selling point of Itaniums on a technological basis is for large-scale multiprocessing, something the Xeon does not do very well. “Any time you to scale beyond eight processors, then you’re going to want to look at Itanium because you get much closer to linear scaling with Itanium than you do with Xeon,” said Jacob.

The ISA plans to spend this year promoting Itanium by targeting specific industries, like health care, financial services and government services with specific product solutions. With more than 13,000 applications, it has a fairly deep software bench on which to draw.

It will continue to promote Itanium-based systems as alternative to expensive mainframe technology with a focus on strengthening virtualization and security as well as power efficiency over mainframes. This year will see the release of Java SE for Itanium and Sophos antivirus security, as well as continued enhancements to the .Net Framework.

It will promote systems running the current Itanium offering, the 9100, even as Tukwila approaches because a processor upgrade is possible. Just as it’s possible to upgrade a dual-core Opteron to the new quad cores, so will be the case with the 9100 to Tukwila upgrade path, said Shiveley.

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