Itanium poses the 64-bit question

Itanium 2 offers virtualisation, memory error-checking, partitioning, resilience and scalability. So are you ready to make the step up to 64-bit computing?

Itanium 2 offers virtualisation, memory error-checking, partitioning, resilience and scalability. So are you ready to make the step up to 64-bit computing?

When Intel and HP debuted their 64-bit Merced processor about five years ago, the chip was unable to match the price and performance of available x86-based machines.

However, Intel has been working on the price and performance of the 64-bit processor, now called Itanium 2, and is positioning it as a Unix/Risc (reduced instruction set computer) mainframe replacement chip.

But analysts have noted that users have been relatively slow to adopt Itanium servers, choosing instead to expand their mainframes or buy 32-bit dual-core Xeon or AMD Opteron-based servers instead. In the UK, sales of Itanium-based servers, as a proportion of server sales in general, is small but growing, according to Chris Ingle, group consultant for the European systems group at analyst firm IDC.

Between summer 2003 and spring 2004, Itanium sales in the UK accounted for just 1% of servers. This figure has risen slowly, to 11% this summer.

The vast majority of servers that organisations are buying are either Risc-based machines or x86 32/64-bit "hybrids", which can run both 32- and 64-bit applications.

Hybrid x86 servers have seen the fastest growth in adoption among UK users over the past two years, according to IDC figures.

Many mid-sized organisations want to know whether there is any point in selecting Itanium over an x64 hybrid system? For starters, users would have to buy a whole new layer of 64-bit software if they made the move to Itanium.

In terms of moving from a 32-bit to a 64-bit server, the gap between the two platforms is huge, according to Ingle, which can put some users off migrating to Itanium. For example,

Itanium offers integrated virtualisation, memory error-checking, partitioning, resilience and scalability, but these features also make Itanium a big step-change from a 32-bit or even 32/64-bit hybrid system.

For larger organisations that run mainframes, Ingle said that many were reluctant to replace them with Itanium servers.

"Itanium has a very long sales cycle," said Ingle. "We went through the 'great mainframe clear-out' in 2000, which did not really happen. Some users moved, but many remained. You can show large cost savings on the Itanium hardware but can you convince users the migration path is stable and risk-free? The answer is generally no. People do not necessarily throw mainframes away they extend them."

The argument to stay with Risc-based mainframes has been further strengthened by the introduction of IBM's Power5 chip, Linux on the mainframe initiative, and entry-level zSeries mainframe servers.

One group for whom it makes obvious sense to migrate to Itanium are users of the HP-UX operating environment. HP, which co-developed Itanium, is recommending they move to servers based on Itanium as their defined upgrade path, because HP will end support for older servers.

For many people, however, the move will come down to a software decision. To run on Itanium, applications must be compiled for Epic, the Itanium instruction set. Although many of the larger business application suppliers, such as Microsoft, SAP and Oracle, have already done this work, many other software suppliers have not.

Virtualisation supplier VMWare is among the suppliers that only offer 32-bit versions of their software, and even HP's own software stack has not yet been ported to Itanium.

Some have argued that Microsoft's plans to optimise Windows Server "Longhorn" for Itanium, and introduce 64-bit-only applications such as Microsoft Exchange 2007, will establish the platform as a key enterprise platform.

However, Mike Thompson, principal analyst at Butler Group, said that there was still a lack of mid-market 64-bit applications. "If you take Microsoft's 64-bit beta version of Windows XP Professional, the uptake has been minimal," he said.

Thompson added that many users would be happy to remain on 32-bit platforms for the foreseeable future. "The truth is, the adoption of 64-bit is very much on the back burner for many," he said.

Thompson said that many users had remained on 32-bit platforms because Intel, AMD and others had helped boost the core processing performance of those architectures by improving motherboards and associated components.

However, Intel is buoyant about Itanium's prospects in the datacentre, arguing that there are now more than 8,000 Itanium-ready applications in production.

Pat Gelsinger, senior vice-president and general manager for Intel's digital enterprise group, said, "Intel remains focused on removing the proprietary shackles that remain in the high-end of the server market segment.

"The broad system and software support for Itanium 2 processors enables CIOs to move away from ageing and expensive legacy systems and instead direct those funds toward standard-based computing and business innovation."

In July, Intel released dual-core versions of the 64-bit Itanium chip, claiming that they doubled the performance of the single-core Itanium. Intel also said the new chips consumed less energy than single-core versions. In addition, a number of key suppliers have thrown their weight behind Itanium, with HP leading the pack with its Integrity servers.

Other suppliers include Fujitsu with its Primequest servers Hitachi, which produces BladeSymphony blade servers NEC, with its NX7700i and Express5800/1000 Series servers and Unisys with its ES7000 server.

But despite the swell of Itanium servers, the future of Intel's Itanium platform still lies in users' hands.

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