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Unisys threatens Itanium with death

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The Itanium server chip from Intel needs all the allies it can get these days, particularly after the latest in a string of delays for the quad-core "Tukwila" chip. But it doesn't look like Intel can count on Unisys to be a particularly enthusiastic supporter of Tukwila when it does get out the door.

Unisys is touting a new TPC-H data warehousing benchmark result for its ES7600R "Monster Xeon" server, which is based on Intel's "Dunnington" Xeon 7400 processors and which was co-developed with Japanese server partner NEC. The Monster Xeon box came to market last fall, and the handwriting was on the wall for the ES7000/one servers that used Itanium cell boards as soon as this box launched.

The reason is that the Dunnington-based machine offers compelling performance and price/performance advantages over Itanium boxes from Unisys, and more importantly, Xeon boxes can now scale as far as most Itanium boxes. As the core counts and raw performance have risen on the Xeon side of the Unisys house (and indeed, among other server makers as well, who sell Itanium or RISC/Unix boxes), Itanium server sales have been declining at Unisys.

"Our customers have voted with their feet and their wallets," explains Colin Lacey, vice president of systems and storage at the Systems and Technology group at Unisys. "In the past twelve months especially, we have seen a dramatic shift from Itanium to Xeon."

Unisys did not start out selling Itanium-based ES7000 servers, and in fact, Unisys had timed the launch of the original ES7000 launch in 2000 to the debut of Microsoft's Windows Server 2000 Datacenter Edition and was perfectly happy to just sell boxes based on 32-bit Xeons. (That first Datacenter Edition was, of course, a year late coming to market and messed up the ES7000 launch). Unisys bet that 32-bit Xeon chips and Datacenter Edition would be enough to take on the high-end Unix market at the time.

But machines needed more main memory than 32-bit Xeon chips could offer. But when some customers running big SQL Server workloads started asking for more memory and processor scalability, Unisys added a line of Itanium-based machines (in late 2001). Of course, the company then enthusiastically supported the 64-bit versions of Intel's Xeon MP processors when they became available. Then it launched the unified Xeon-Itanium ES7000/one line in 2006. Company executives said at the time that many customers still wanted Itanium servers and that demand was on the rise.

The ES7000/one boxes, like the original ES7000s, are based on a four-socket cell board (Unisys calls its variant of the NUMA-SMP hybrid architecture Cellular MultiProcessing) for Xeon and Itanium chips. The second-generation ES7000s actually put eight sockets on a board and pushed scalability up to 32 cores in a single system image. The current iteration of the ES7000/one machines support single-core "Madison" and dual-core "Montecito" and "Montvale" Itanium processors as well as the "Tigerton" Xeon MP processors, which are sold as the 7300 series.

The Monster Xeon box - which uses the four-core and six-core Dunnington Xeon 7400 series chips and spans up to four cell boards in a single image (for a total of 64 or 96 cores) - does not offer Itanium-based boards. Because Tukwila uses a different socket and the QuickPath Interconnect, it requires Unisys to make or acquire a new Itanium chipset. The Dunnington machines are still based on the old front side bus architecture used with Xeons since the dawn of time.

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