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Abandon ship! Dell jumps off Itanium

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Dell has become the latest OEM to abandon Itanium, Intel's ill-fated 64 bit chip. The processor's future has been looking downbeat since Intel decided to adopt AMD's 64 bit instruction set for its future servers, relegating IA-64 to high end niches.

Dell's decision is hardly surprising given its poor sales figures. Dell lives or dies by high volumes, but last year shipped just 1,371 Itanium servers. That's up from just 12 the previous year, but it was enough to give Dell five per cent of the IA-64 market. HP, Intel's partner on the chip project, shipped 76 per cent of IA-64 systems.

And it had all started out so promisingly.

Work at Intel on a 64 bit VLIW processor began in late 1991, and in spring 1994 HP formally pooled its own parallel work on a next-generation architecture into a joint venture with Intel.

Big iron vendors scrambled to incorporate IA-64 into their roadmaps, while analysts scrambled to align themselves with the Intel spin.

In August 1997, Martin Reynolds, then VP of technology assessment at Dataquest, predicted that Itanium would replace 32-bit Intel processors by around 2002. And his was one of the more pessimistic predictions at the time.

In 1999, razor-sharp analyst company IDC predicted that the Itanium market would be worth around $33bn by 2001. It later revised this down to $28bn by 2004. IDC's best brains missed their target by only $26.4bn.

While the world waited for a competitive and affordable Itanic processor, rival RISC vendors scuppered their own programs. Motorola's 88000, PA-RISC, MIPS and DEC/Compaq's Alpha were all either abandoned or put into mothballs.

If an Itanium starts up in a forest - can anyone hear it boot?

If an Itanium starts up in a forest - can anyone hear it boot?

But the technical challenges that the new architecture posed to compiler writers - who assumed the burden for parallelizing the code efficiently - were great. The heat and power requirements of the chip were higher than anyone expected. And meanwhile, both Intel's 32 bit server processors and big iron RISC, like IBM's POWER chip, didn't stand still. As a consequence, only the most specialized software was maintained for Itanium.

For several years the flagship OEMs have made only token attempts to keep their IA-64 programs alive. IBM jumped ship earlier this year, and Hewlett Packard removed it from their workstation lines in 2003.

But the band plays on. Hitachi is continuing to showcase IA-64 systems in its 'Harmonious Center of Competency'. ®

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