How Much Longer for Itanium?

What to make of Microsoft’s decision to end support for the Intel Itanium on several key software packages?

The company announced this week that Windows Server 2008 R2, along with SQL Server 2008 R2 and Visual Studio 2010, will be the last to back Itanium. The reason given was that today’s 64-bit versions of x86 processors are fully capable of supporting high-end workloads, a nod that Intel may be the victim of its own success with releases like the Xeon 7500.

Reaction was mixed, with most analysts noting that Itanium made up only a small fraction of Microsoft’s enterprise business, so dropping the platform is not likely to result in significant blowback. The bigger question, as pointed out by Butler Group’s Nik Simpson, is whether HP will continue its support much longer. The HP-UX platform represents the lion’s share of the Itanium market, so support there is critical if Intel hopes to keep the platform alive. HP had no official comment at the time of this posting.

For its part, Intel isn’t showing any ruffled feathers, saying that most high-end users are more interested in reliability than performance. It points to several advanced RAS (Reliability, Availability and Serviceability) features that are unique to the Itanium, such as soft error correction and bad data containment, that are crucial to mission-critical UNIX environments.

The more significant aspect of this story is the ever-dwindling hardware options available to popular OSes, according to Server Watch’s Paul Rubens. When you consider that Oracle is ending support for Solaris and OpenSolaris on System z mainframes and Apple’s firm commitment that OS X will never run on anything but Apple hardware, it’s becoming harder and harder to find the optimal configurations both from an operational and a capex perspective.

Despite Intel’s contention to the contrary, the sun appears to be setting on the Itanium, but it’s not twilight just yet for the platform. The vast majority of users, enterprise or otherwise, are clearly wed to x86, and the more powerful those designs get, the more it will encroach on the high-end segment. Itanium still has a few key features in its pocket, but it won’t be long before they are matched by commodity systems or even software modules.

And when that happens, the market for pure Itanium environments will shrink to unsustainable levels.

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