Itanium hits 10-year mark, less Windows

Platform continues to move ahead, as Unix market slowly declines

Big vendors aren't democracies, so when Kevin Armour, the CTO of Paycor Inc., heard last year that Microsoft was ending support for Itanium, he knew he was stuck.

"I was a little disappointed," he said of Microsoft 's decision, which was made a year ago next month.

Armour's three-year-old Itanium platform had proved to be a reliable database platform for his fast-growing business. He had two Hewlett-Packard Integrity servers with eight sockets each and a total of 16 cores running SQL Server and Windows 2003 Server. Armour said he was due for an upgrade and had been pleased with the Integrity systems.

The 64-bit Itanium chip was introduced 10-years ago as a challenger to the RISC systems that dominated enterprise shops at the time. Microsoft ported Windows to the Itanium platform, but when the x86 64-bit chips arrived, first from AMD, "that completely took all of the momentum out of Windows sales on Itanium," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Today, analysts from Gartner and IDC estimate that Windows on Itanium makes up no more than 10% of the installed base. Among the systems HP supports on the Itanium platform are HP-UX, OpenVMS and NonStop. In 2009, Red Hat announced plans to drop support for Itanium.

Jed Scaramella, an analyst at IDC, said HP has about 90% of the Itanium market. Itanium servers represented about 7.1% of the market last quarter, or $1.1 billion in worldwide revenue. The Itanium share was 8% in the year-ago quarter.

"Things are moving toward x86 - it's just a question for how long," said Scaramella of the broader trend in the Unix market.

There has been longstanding overall decline in the market share of Unix systems, but it remains a very large market. Unix systems counted for about 26% of worldwide server spending in the last quarter -- $3.8 billion -- declining about .4%, according to IDC.

Intel continues to improve its Itanium processor and just announced an upgrade, code-named Poulson: an eight-core chip. This chip will have 3.1 billion transistors versus the 2.2 billion on the current generation 9300 processor, Tukwila.

Brookwood called Poulson "a massive overhaul" of the chip architecture.

Itanium has what is known as the "six-wide" instruction issue. The chip was designed to exploit parallelism in programs, but the most it could issue were six instructions at a time. Poulson is the first Itanium to be able to issue 12 instructions at a time. "That, in theory, will enable applications to run faster at the same basic clock speed," he said.

But the capabilities of the x86 systems proved themselves to Armour.

Armour moved his Windows Server operating system and SQL Server from HP's Itanium-based Integrity line to HP's ProLiant, Xeon-based DL980 servers with eight sockets and a total of 64 cores.

Armour said his firm's investigation of the Itanium and x86 benchmarks left him confident that the x86 systems, with 512GB of memory each, could handle the workload. That work includes processing payroll and HR services for some 19,000 clients, representing about 700,000 employees.

The x86 systems, which were also less costly, have been running since November. "They are definitely as reliable" as the Integrity systems, said Armour.

In announcing its decision to end Itanium support, Microsoft cited the "natural evolution" of the x86 64-bit multi-core processors, and their improved scalability and reliability.

Microsoft will continue support mainstream support for Itanium to July 2013 and extended support to July 2018.

Matt Eastwood, an analyst at IDC, doesn't see Microsoft's decision hurting Itanium. Microsoft use on that platform has been declining, and "the primary Windows workload, SQL Server, runs very well on x86 systems," he said.

Similarly, George Weiss, an analyst at Gartner, said Microsoft's decision is "of no great consequence of the general position of the platform. But he did note that being able to show that the Itanium supported multi-platforms would have had marketing value.

"We continue to see a decline in Unix over the decade and a zero-sum game in market share among the RISC/Itanium vendors," said Weiss. "Each vendor will be pressed to come up with sustainability strategies for their non-x86 business."

Katie Curtin-Mestre, director for software planning and marketing, Business Critical Systems, at HP, said Windows on Itanium "represents a small percentage of HP's overall Integrity sales."

The changes in Windows support for the Itanium architecture will not impact the roadmap for Integrity hardware or the roadmap for HP-UX, OpenVMS and NonStop running on those servers, she said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is .

Read more about processors in Computerworld's Processors Topic Center.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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