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Microsoft said it would cease development of a 64-bit version of Windows 2003 Standard Edition, its mainstream server operating system. Instead it plans to release a 64-bit/32 bit hybrid operating system - x64 -to support chips that offer both 64-bit and 32-bit software compatibility, such as AMD's Opteron chip with 64-bit extensions, or the recently-released 64-bit version of Intel's Xeon chip, called Nocona.
Although Itanium supports 32-bit applications, tests have shown they do not run as fast as on native 32-bit processors.
Mike Thompson, principal research analyst at Butler Group, said, "This has to be seen as another major blow for Itanium."
Even though adoption of Itanium has been slow, 64-bit Windows for Itanium is available and running in some installations. The hybrid 64-bit/32-bit Windows operating system from Microsoft is still being developed.
"For Microsoft users, the x64 operating system is still in beta, and some of the reviews are reporting issues. Microsoft is suggesting users only try it in a test environment," Thompson said.
There are still several options for organisations that want to make use of the power of 64-bit processing, said Thompson. "You can still go down the Itanium route, depending on your requirements, or look at Risc architectures such as Sun's Ultrasparc or IBM's Power processor. A clearer option is to look at 64-bit-enabled Xeon and compare it with AMD's Opteron," he said.
In addition to Microsoft, other major software suppliers said they did not expect Itanium to enter mainstream use and were circumspect about their support. A spokesman for SAP said, "Itanium is a high-end platform. Whether or not it will become a mainstream processor platform is up to the market, not SAP.
"We have no plans to optimise SAP software for any particular processor. We offer hardware-independent products which, as such, already fully support Itanium processors."
Tim Payne, Oracle's senior director of technology marketing EMEA, said, "The Itanium platform is something customers are evaluating for particular application requirements, such as datawarehousing, in memory data sets where extra horsepower and large memory caches can be of great value.
"We consider [Itanium] to be one of our strategic platforms, among which we are agnostic - we do not specifically express a preference, but support them all to ensure our customers get the benefit of choice."
Users who may have considered 64-bit Itanium should revise their datacentre strategy. Analyst firm Gartner said, "High-volume server users should not plan on broad Itanium deployment until at least 2007, although some applications may benefit from Itanium scale-out architectures."
Intel said that in 2007 it was planning to introduce a common processor platform for Itanium and Xeon in which the motherboard and chipset would be the same. "By that time, there will be cost parity between the two processors, with Itanium offering twice the performance of Xeon," an Intel spokesman said.
Gartner said HP-UX users should consider Itanium. Given Hewlett-Packard's involvement in the development of the processor, they would be well advised to look at 64-bit alternatives such as Power from IBM or Sparc from Sun, it said.