Itanium's future: Users believe Intel, not Oracle
Server 'battle royale' on the horizon
Who do you believe? Oracle, when it says that Intel will eventually replace the Itanium processor with Xeons, or Intel and its Itanium co-developer HP, when they say there are two more generations of Itaniums coming, and that those processors will be supported for at least a decade.
There isn't a lot of consensus on this issue, which erupted seemingly out of nowhere in late March, just in time to give new HP CEO Leo Apotheker a reason to visit the drugstore before his first meeting with HP shareholders.
Oracle dropped the iceberg in front of the good chip Itanic late in the evening on March 22, saying that it was stopping software development for future releases of its database, middleware, and application software on the Itanium processor.
Oracle is not alone in this, of course, but with a considerable portion of the HP-UX installed base using Itanium-based Integrity servers to support Oracle databases, Oracle's announcement was tantamount to declaring the HP-UX platform a dead end.
So what do large companies with some skin in the game think about what is going on with Oracle, Intel, HP, and the Itanium chip?
To find out, Gabriel Consulting Group surveyed more than 450 decision-makers, mostly in large enterprises where all of the key operating systems – Microsoft Windows, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, IBM AIX, HP-UX, and Oracle Solaris – are well represented, as well as servers from Dell, HP, IBM, and Oracle.
The sites that Gabriel contacted to take the pulse of IT shops are also heavy users of Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, and DB2 databases, with a smattering of Sybase and other open source databases. They also get around a bit, IT-wise: about 85 per cent of the customers surveyed said they used Oracle's databases, and a little more than half had either Solaris or HP-UX in their shops; a little less than half had AIX, and almost all of them had Windows and RHEL.
When asked, straight up, if they believed Oracle that Intel was going to kill off Itanium, 48 per cent of those polled said they did not agree with Oracle's interpretation of Intel's roadmaps, 23 per cent said they were not sure, and the remaining 29 per cent said they agreed with Oracle.
As a reality-check, Gabriel asked how many people believed that Intel was standing behind the Itanium processor, and 50 per cent said they believed the chipmaker, although more people were dubious about what Intel's plans really are.
Red Hat pulled the plug on Itanium support with Enterprise Linux 6 – which means Oracle had to as well, unless it wanted to keep supporting Itanium all by its lonesome with its RHEL clone. Also, Microsoft said last year that Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008 will be the last of these products to run on Itanium.
Because of the uncertainty that Oracle, Microsoft, and Red Hat have stirred up – and presumably after some intense pressure from HP to say more than the party line – Intel has finally confirmed said that the eight-core "Poulson" Itanium is coming in 2012, and that the "Kittson" kicker is due around two years after that. Intel's top brass have privately told Itanium customers that Kittson is in the "architecture and early development phase", and that it is "currently starting exploratory work for what comes after Kittson".
Why Intel and HP didn't just come out and say that a month ago is a mystery. But that's the IT racket for you.
So, what is going on with Oracle? The end users surveyed by Gabriel don't think Oracle is pulling the plug on software development for Itanium processors because the company wants to reduce the number of platforms it supports. Only 34 per cent of those polled agreed that this was the reason, and another 15 per cent strongly agreed.
A slightly larger share of survey respondents agreed that Oracle would use the supposed sunsetting of Itanium as a justification to raise license and support costs for Itanium platforms. This is not news. Back in December 2010, Oracle dropped its per-core pricing for its software on its own Sparc servers while at the same time doubling the price of software running on Itanium processors.
What the IT shops polled by Gabriel seem to believe is going on is exactly what most of us think is going on: Oracle is trying to undermine confidence in competitors' platforms while shoring up its own relatively newly acquired systems business.
Of those polled, 44 per cent agreed and another 33 per cent strongly agreed that Oracle's actions were a competitive move to kill HP's HP-UX and NonStop platforms. And 37 per cent agreed and another 42 per cent strongly agreed that Oracle's actions in March were but the first step in an Oracle plan that would put all competitive server platforms at a disadvantage to Oracle's own systems.
"If these customers are right in what they're expecting from Oracle, then we're going to see a resumption of the server wars like we had back in the 1990s," says Dan Olds, principal researcher at Gabriel and someone familiar to El Reg readers in the HPC area. "It's a big gamble on Oracle's part, and if it plays its hand too strongly, it will lock Oracle into a battle royale with the rest of the industry." ®
Back when Itanic was being actively backed by Intel and major software vendors, its notoriety as triumph of marketing over CPU design for the sole purpose of bringing the general purpose CPU market under Intel monopoly was pointed out and rightly criticized by all major tech sites, el Reg included.
Then, one company after another stopped supporting it, including Microsoft and Red Hat, and Intel was ostensibly lukewarm towards continued development of Itanium, but all remained fine and well, and attacks on Itanic continued.
Now, when Oracle finally jumped the gun and announced termination of development for Itanic, everyone is suddenly rushing to Itanium's defense (and to bashing Oracle)? Come on! I know that the general attitude of most sites is that Oracle is greater evil than even Microsoft, not to mention hp or Intel (which, bafflingly, is still presented in good light despite the uncovered monopolistic practices), but its gotten ridiculous at this point. Microsoft or Red Hat were never subjected to a fraction of the criticism that's being leveled at Oracle.
Itanium was never a good chip, plain and simple. Intel suggested an ambivalent attitude towards it in the recent years and I can hardly believe it will retain any edge over x86, much less any significant edge. Coupled with dwindling market share, this was expected. But to defend Itanium all of a sudden? I'm baffled.
We really need an angelic/demonic Larry icon...
It's a smart move by Oracle - MS and Redhat know that Itanium is a dying platform, and their abandonment means that it will die off even faster. Oracle will save money in development costs and will sell some Sparc kit - not everyone will go from Itanium to Xeon/Opterons.
Whether buyers trust Intel or Oracle is besides the point - the total cost of switching hardware is often less than the cost of switching software, particularly for non-trivial applications or anything with tight database integration. Even if Intel keeps producing and supporting Itanium, it won't matter to Oracle customers running on it...a great many will still switch hardware to keep up with Oracle releases, especially as packaged software running against it requires releases x.y of Oracle.