Can Itanium Make It in an x86 Universe?

Arthur Cole
Slide Show

Customers Weigh In on Oracle Itanium Controversy

It's pretty clear that many IT organizations are dubious of Oracle's motives.

Data loads may be getting heavier, but that doesn't mean enterprises are turning toward more powerful processors to handle them.

In fact, with cloud computing and virtualization the order of the day, most organizations prefer to stick with distributed architectures to accommodate their workaday IT needs.

Gartner reported recently that the third quarter marked the continued slide of high-end RISC and Itanium processors at the expense of x86. The latter posted a healthy 7.2 percent gain over the same period last year to hit 2.4 million servers shipped, while RISC and Itanium machines declined 6.8 percent. The x86 gains were most pronounced in the Asia-Pacific region, which jumped nearly 24 percent. The news was a mixed bag for HP, which held on to the top spot in terms of shipments with nearly a third of the market, although IBM edged in front in revenue, topping $3.85 billion.

With HP still in a commanding role in the x86 market, speculation is turning toward its ultimate plans for the Itanium. As the last major supporter of the platform, and with Oracle continuing to roil the waters following its exit earlier this year, Itanium's future depends almost entirely on the firmness of that commitment.

For the moment, at least, Itanium seems to have Itanium's back. The UK's Register reports that the company has inked a deal with Violin Memory to build flash memory systems for the Itanium market. Most high-end users running HP-UX or OpenVMS live and die by high-throughput performance, so flash-based acceleration is more than welcome. Violin can offer shared arrays with 4 GBps bandwidth and upwards of a million IOPS, which should be enough to satisfy even the most hardcore databases.

At the same time, though, HP is looking to unite Itanium and x86 machines in a single Superdome 2 enclosure under the Project Odyssey program. The intent is to continue supporting Itanium on the Integrity server while offering Xeon-based blades to offload critical Windows and Linux applications. Ostensibly, this is to provide high-end customers the means to handle Big Data projects and crucial enterprise functions on the same platform, but it has nonetheless led to some below-the-surface speculation that it will ultimately allow HP to transition away from Itanium altogether. It's interesting to note that Intel is also looking to bridge the divide between the Itanium and high-end Xeons through common support of the QuickPath Interconnect and other similarities.

As a top-end processor, the Itanium suffers from the fact that virtual and cloud architectures are more attuned to scale-out architectures than scale-up ones. That doesn't mean it's ready for the scrap heap just yet, but it does call for an innovative approach to maintain relevancy in a rapidly changing IT landscape.

There are plenty of entrenched interests that want the Itanium to succeed. All that's needed is the right architecture to make it happen.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Dec 6, 2011 12:41 PM Sam Sam  says:

Those market share numbers make it look worse than it actually is for RISC. Yes, the application server (lower end, primarily Sun) RISC servers are being taken out by x86. The scale-up RISC (higher end, primarily IBM) looks stronger than ever based up last quarter's numbers. RISC is going to be almost entirely for high-end, mission critical applications, but there is still a strong market demand which cannot be met with DIY x86 servers.

Dec 6, 2011 12:42 PM Sam Sam  says:

To answer the question though, no, Itanium will not make it. RISC will be around though.

Dec 6, 2011 6:31 PM Laura Laura  says: in response to Sam

Agree, IBM's Power market continues to grow.   There will always be customers who aren't afraid to go against the x86 grain when they know it will ultimately save them $$ and give them the RAS characteristics they need.  x86 just isn't right for everyone

Dec 29, 2011 3:08 PM Sam Sam  says: in response to Laura

Yes, the x86 world is fraught with RAS issues. In addition to the nature of x86 server builds vs. Unix server builds, all of the stack vendors hate each other and are constantly trying to make it difficult for their competitors and it the process cause issues for customers (Red Hat vs. Microsoft, RH and Microsoft vs. VMware, Oracle vs. the world).


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