Itanium hits 10-year mark, less Windows

Big vendors aren't democracies, so when Kevin Armour, the CTO of Paycor Inc., heard last year that Microsoft was ending support for Itanium, he knew he was stuck.

"I was a little disappointed," he said of Microsoft's decision, which was made a year ago next month.

Armour's three-year-old Itanium platform had proved to be a reliable database platform for his fast-growing business. He had two Hewlett-Packard Integrity servers with eight sockets each and a total of 16 cores running SQL Server and Windows 2003 Server. Armour said he was due for an upgrade and had been pleased with the Integrity systems.

The 64-bit Itanium chip was introduced 10-years ago as a challenger to the RISC systems that dominated enterprise shops at the time. Microsoft ported Windows to the Itanium platform, but when the x86 64-bit chips arrived, first from AMD, "that completely took all of the momentum out of Windows sales on Itanium," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Today, analysts from Gartner and IDC estimate that Windows on Itanium makes up no more than 10% of the installed base. Among the systems HP supports on the Itanium platform are HP-UX, OpenVMS and NonStop. In 2009, Red Hat announced plans to drop support for Itanium.

Jed Scaramella, an analyst at IDC, said HP has about 90% of the Itanium market. Itanium servers represented about 7.1% of the market last quarter, or $1.1 billion in worldwide revenue. The Itanium share was 8% in the year-ago quarter.

"Things are moving toward x86 - it's just a question for how long," said Scaramella of the broader trend in the Unix market.

There has been longstanding overall decline in the market share of Unix systems, but it remains a very large market. Unix systems counted for about 26% of worldwide server spending in the last quarter -- $3.8 billion -- declining about .4%, according to IDC.

Intel continues to improve its Itanium processor and just announced an upgrade, code-named Poulson: an eight-core chip. This chip will have 3.1 billion transistors versus the 2.2 billion on the current generation 9300 processor, Tukwila.

Brookwood called Poulson "a massive overhaul" of the chip architecture.

Itanium has what is known as the "six-wide" instruction issue. The chip was designed to exploit parallelism in programs, but the most it could issue were six instructions at a time. Poulson is the first Itanium to be able to issue 12 instructions at a time. "That, in theory, will enable applications to run faster at the same basic clock speed," he said.

But the capabilities of the x86 systems proved themselves to Armour.

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