Waiting for Itanium

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What does the future hold for the Itanium? That question is on a lot of minds these days, particularly at HP, as Intel gears up for the release of the quad-core Tukwila version later this year, or next.


The history of the Itanium is mixed at best. Hailed as the x86 killer when launched in 2001, the Itanium never gained a strong following and was being written off in many circles by mid-decade. Since then, development has continued, but new launches have been muted affairs, such as last September's quiet introduction of the "Montvale" Itanium 9100.


According to analysts at Quocirca, the reason is the mediocre performance of the chip. It clocks in at 1.66 GHz, just a fraction over the previous Itanium, the Montecito. Plus there was the fact that the Montvale was a year behind schedule.


Meanwhile, IBM has had some success pulling customers away from both the Itanium and the Sun Sparc and UltraSparc lines onto its own Power6 processor. This has IBM in a feisty mood, with one VP telling the UK's Channel Register that Itanium has a shelf life of perhaps five years. Talk is cheap, however, considering that HP is seeing increased sales of Itanium systems nonetheless.


And when it comes to next-generation chips, IBM has not exactly been forthcoming as to what exactly it has in store for the Power7, due in the 2010 time frame. One possibility is the use of on-board or even on-chip optical interconnects, although lead designer Brad McCredie is tight-lipped on the subject.


As for Intel's part in all this, it seems quite happy keeping Itaniums out in front of the buying public even while it pushes Xeons for the x86 crowd. The company just released a white paper touting the Itanium's prowess in leveraging virtualization for functions like data availability, disaster recovery and security.


Is this enough? Probably not. At the beginning, Itanium's biggest problem was one of heightened expectations. If you assume the mantle of paradigm-shifter, you'd better deliver. But now that a few years have gone by and users have had a chance to see what the Itanium can really do, it has become a matter of product development and innovation. Failure to push the envelope is the surest way to drive away customers. The Itanium could still wind up in the dust bin, but only if Intel puts it there.