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Itanium: 'A special cause for optimism'

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With the quad-core "Tukwila" Itanium processors coming out sometime around the middle of this year, the Itanium Solutions Alliance, the consortium of hardware and software vendors that peddle Itanium-based products, has dusted off the Itanium drum and begun banging on it.

If there is one thing that you can probably say about processor architectures here in early 2009, it is that Itanium and Sparc have been for years tied for the position as the next chip to go, but this has changed. Sun Microsystems' declining fortunes and impending acquisition by Oracle probably makes the future of Itanium, relative to Sparc at least, seem somewhat rosy.

But this is a bit like the old joke about bears: Itanium only has to outrun Sun if it wants to keep from being eaten by the grizzly, but when and if that happens - and I know all about Oracle's internal pep talk about how it will keep Sun's hardware business going, which it has to do in the short-term but most certainly does not need to do in the long term - Itanium will be the next thing that the bear eats before it gets to IBM's Power architecture.

If Itanium wants to outlive Power, what Intel and HP really need to pray for is that the x64 chip takes away all those game console deals from Big Blue. They need embedded x64 chips, like the Atom, to take off as an alternative to embedded PowerPC chips, too. IBM better stop and tie its sneakers if it wants to outrun that grizzly.

This morning, the Itanium Solutions Alliance put out a statement with some vague numbers showing the strength of the Itanium server platform in 2008. By IDC's reckoning of the server space in the fourth quarter, shipments of Itanium-based machines rose by 18 per cent and it was the seventh straight quarter of sales that crested above $1bn for the Itanium server category.

Data from Gartner's report covering 2008's server sales indicated that Itanium machines outgrew RISC-based alternatives in terms of sales and shipments, growing share in each category.

"While the server business is certainly mired in difficult times, the multifaceted community that surrounds Itanium-based systems has special cause for optimism," said Joan Jacobs, president and executive director of the Itanium Solutions Alliance, in a statement released this morning before anyone on the West coast of the States was awake to field any questions.

She continued: "Even as the performance and scalability of x86 architectures make great progress, the inherent strengths of Itanium-based technology will continue to prove irreplaceable for mission-critical enterprise workloads, including large-scale databases and data warehousing; for the inevitable migration away from costly mainframes; and for intensive applications that rely on parallel processing, large memories and complicated algorithms."

The irony, of course, is that HP partnered with Intel to create a broader, more modern, 64-bit chip architecture that everyone would inevitably move to, and what Itanium has been relegated to is exactly the same market niche that IBM's mainframes and, to a certain extent its i-based Power Systems proprietary midrange computers, have been pushed into.

In a blog posting, Eddie Toh, the platform marketing manager at Intel's Asia/Pacific operations based in Singapore, said that Itanium had eclipsed Sparc in the region based on IDC data. Toh said that Itanium system revenue in the AP region was up 40 per cent in 2008, while Power-based systems only saw 4 per cent revenue growth and Sparc sales fell by 19 per cent.

Worldwide, Toh added, Itanium "systems" grew by 18 percent (presumably he meant shipments, matching the above cited data, and presumably for the full year, not the fourth quarter only), while Power server shipments fell by 22 per cent and Sparc shipments fell by 10 per cent.

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