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Itanium goes clubbing

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If you want to build a market, start a club. That seems to be the motto now in the high-end processor business, for Intel and HP are set to follow IBM in setting up an organisation designed to promote the development of software, products and services around a processor family. If an ecosystem doesn’t grow naturally, create one.

This month sees the inauguration of the Intel/HP-sponsored Itanium Solutions Alliance. Initial club members look like including server vendors such as NEC Unisys, Hitachi, SGI, Bull and Fujitsu, along with ISVs such as Microsoft, Red Hat Novell, Oracle, SAP and SAS. According to Clay Ryder, managing director of analysts, Sageza, the Alliance looks to be following the mould established by IBM with the formation of power.org, the club it set up a year ago to help push developments around the Power and PowerPC processor families.

As Ryder observes, the need for such a club in promoting Itanium development is now becoming crucial. “As much as HP and Intel can talk till they are blue in the face about how Itanium is an industry standard platform, it is simply not,” he said. “In fact, the Power architecture is far more pervasive and is in fact the de facto 64-bit computing platform.”

If Intel and HP, as main Itanium cheerleaders, are to push the processor into a significant position in the market then it will require more input and effort than the pair can provide, either jointly or severally. For a start it is going to require a body of active applications developers skilled in exploiting the processor family, and that will not come into being if there is not an installed base of servers on which to run the applications. It is a classic `virtuous circle’ that still needs to grow, despite Intel’s excitement about the 5,000 Itanium-ready applications said to already exist.

“The ecosystem, which most importantly includes ISVs and other software vendors, must be on board if Itanium is to gain mass market acceptance,” Ryder said. It is fair to say that Intel has already stepped back from earlier claims that Itanium would be remotely `mass market’, but it has to hope that can at least take a major slice of the high end server market. That objective is then both a challenge and an opportunity for applications developers, where software is now the key component in the selling of business solutions, as Ryder pointed out. “People are increasingly not buying technology today but rather solutions to business problems.”

The Alliance, as with power.org before it, is and attempt to create by design the sort of synergistic hardware/software ecosystem that occurred naturally with the PC. If applications developers can be persuaded to join – and the presence of Microsoft and Red Hat probably do more to help here than server vendors – they may be able to give users sufficient confidence that the necessary ecosystem exists, can be sustained and can then grow.

There is, however, a `but’…“If this fails,” Ryder observed, “the hope of Itanium developers to reach a broad market will for all intents and purposes be dashed.” ®

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