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IBM/PSI legal wrangle may give Itanium new life

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Leaving aside the arm-wrestling practice IBM's legal department is currently getting with Platform Solutions Inc (PSI) and its ability to run IBM mainframe applications on any reasonably spec'd Itanium-based server, the availability of such software tools marks a development that could interest developers.

But first, a bit of historical perspective. Those with really long memories will remember the old AMD 2900 bit-slice processor family from the mid-1970s. Here was a 4-bit slice Arithmetic Logic Unit (ALU) and support chips that, together, created a modular device architecture from which it was possible to build processors in multiples of 4-bits.

So, even then, 16-bit processor architectures could be built from four ALUs in a much cheaper way than trying to manufacture a single chip solution. And as the slices ran microcode in firmware, the old minicomputer makers could put together a system running proprietary code with relative ease. (OK, "relative" is a relative term, but you get the idea – it made things doable, rather than laughably expensive).

The underlying wrangle between IBM and PSI is that the latter, subsequent to acquiring a licence to IBM's mainframe operating system, z/OS, has come up with the necessary firmware to run mainframe applications code on any Itanium-based server. PSI is now well-cuddled up to HP – the world's leading fan of the Itanium – and that is quite likely a major stick to poke in Big Blue's corporate eye.

Setting such political machinations to one side, however, the PSI development adds some interesting fuel to the perennial "Is Itanium Worth Saving?" argument. And, while the obvious attention turns to other Itanium-oriented server vendors such as Hitachi and Fujitsu, it is also pointing at an opportunity where developers can take a piece of the action.

Following on from HP's porting of both the old Tandem Non-Stop and DEC OpenVMS operating systems to Itanium, the parallel with the old bit-slice 2900 line starts to look interesting. If Itanium can now run IBM apps under z/OS – and incidentally then run Windows, Linux and Unix on the same machine as well – the question is begged, what else can it run? If it has the potential to be the "universal platform", where all that needs to change is the firmware it is running at any particular moment, what might developers and systems houses do with such a capability?

It is even possible to see how it might be used to create tightly controlled, very proprietary environments that could exist within, and interoperate with, other systems in a standards-based box. Here is one silly, probably impractical suggestion - microcode-based "virtual architectures" created on Flash memory sticks.

One thing is certain - and IBM's past tribulations with anti-trust legislation might have an impact here – the PSI offering has the potential to create new market opportunities for developers with z/OS support skills.

Big Blue is, not surprisingly, threatening any user that moves its OS and apps to an Itanium-server solution with removal of support – on the not unreasonable basis that they are not designed for such an environment. But anti-trust legislation seems to suggest that cutting off users in such a manner may breach that law, which could mean that an opportunity for third parties to start officially supporting them might well appear. ®

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