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Intel Itanium processor on the rise after slow start

Servers with Intel's Itanium chips are gaining in popularity, even if they trail x86 and traditional Unix servers by a large margin.

For the IT department at Aearo Technologies Inc., skepticism about moving to Itanium was so strong that the company actually had Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) prepare quotes for more PA-RISC machines instead.

That was in February 2006. Then the Indianapolis-based industrial safety gear manufacturer started another round of negotiations. What they found was that HP was pushing Itanium machines so hard that Aearo would be able to save $80,000 a year in support and maintenance costs by migrating there.

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"We don't regret this decision, that's for sure," said Roman Rozman, senior IT director at Aearo.

Aearo is what most people would consider a typical Itanium customer: the migrator. This type of customer has been an HP shop for a long time -- in Aearo's case, 20-plus years -- and is considering getting away from the HP3000 or HP9000 platforms because the support end of life is either near, as in the first case, or they fear it's near, as in the second.

"It wasn't an easy choice to go to Integrity," said Jim Griggs, Aearo's systems group leader. "But when we sat down with HP, we talked about how we replace hardware every four to five years, and we figured we shouldn't stay with PA-RISC."

When Itanium first hit the scene, its proponents predicted it would take over the computing world. Its detractors nicknamed it the Itanic. But the truth is that success of the Intel Corp. Itanium processor has fallen somewhere in between -- not as popular as its creators may have hoped, but also not the sinking ship its competitors wished it to be.

"I think, as one might expect, the partisans of both sides exaggerate their positions," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. who recently wrote "Itanium's state of the union," a report on the processor. "I would say that Itanium is basically a good, solid, high-end processor predominantly used by HP."

The Intel Itanium is based on the Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing architecture, better known as EPIC. Intel and HP jointly developed the design on the EPIC chips in the early 1990s, as HP sought to replace its servers based on the Reduced Instruction Set Computer architecture, aka RISC.

About a dozen server vendors, including Unisys, Fujitsu and NEC Corp., sell Itanium-based systems, but by far the biggest Itanium server vendor is HP.

Revenue around Itanium isn't near as high as RISC-based Unix systems or x86 systems, but it is growing. IDC has reported double-digit growth for Itanium-based systems for the past several quarters and predicts it will grow to $6.6 billion of revenue in 2009 compared to just $1.4 billion in 2004.

In its most recent quarterly figures, IDC showed that Itanium grew more than 70 percent from the same quarter last year and exceeded $1 billion in quarterly revenue for the first time. But it's still not close to the x86 server market at $7.2 billion, or overall Unix systems at $5.1 billion, last quarter.

That's in stark contrast to Itanium's early days. When HP and Intel Corp. first announced the Itanium chip in 1994, they had high hopes. At the time, the two companies felt that Itanium could become the dominant processor in 64-bit computing, but the combination of the growth of the 64-bit x86 server market along with Intel's nasty habit of bringing their products to market years late wore on some users. When the first Itanium chip came out in 2001, it didn't sell well. But it has since grown to be an alternative to RISC chips, such as UltraSPARC from Sun Microsystems Inc., the Power chip from IBM and even HP's own PA-RISC.

Eclipsed by x86

Even so, growing x86 systems make it tough for EPIC or even RISC systems to survive. All four major server vendors -- IBM, HP, Dell Inc. and Sun -- now sell servers with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD), whose 64-bit architecture serves precisely the market that Itanium sought to corner.

Haff said that the chances of Itanium overtaking the 64-bit computing world are slim to none, but that the platform has become a viable one for Intel, HP and smaller server vendors.

IT managers are well aware of the platform. IDC reported last year that more customers than it expected were aware of the Itanium platform and its server options, and that more than expected had purchased or were planning to purchase Itanium systems. About 80% of the 500 users it surveyed were aware of the Itanium platform, with about 25% saying they had already bought Itanium and about one-third reporting that it was highly likely they would buy one in the next year-and-a-half.

"There may have been starry-eyed aspirations in the beginning, but its place in the market is as a highly sought out processor for servers in the data center, and it's doing well there," said Brian Cox, HP server marketing director.

The pain of porting -- for some

HP's two biggest competitors in the midrange server space, IBM and Sun, aren't on that bandwagon.

David Gelardi, IBM vice president of deep computing, argued that moving customers to the Itanium platform, whether it's from a RISC-based platform or x86, brings with it a whole lot of headaches, especially if users find that their applications aren't available on the new platform.

"Power has been continuing to evolve from a base that goes all the way back to 1990," Gelardi said. "We've had the same operating system, AIX, for an awfully long time, and there haven't been any substantial aberrations in the way of clients migrating operating systems, and therefore applications and microprocessors."

Migration wasn't an issue for Aearo. The IT department for the company, which has 20 locations worldwide, is centralized in Southbridge, Mass., and has a mix of old and new HP servers. Before moving to Integrity, the company had eight PA-RISC HP9000s running its SAP ERP software on HP-UX. The company also had a couple dozen HP ProLiant servers running Novell and two HP3000s running a customized application for prescription safety glasses.

Once Aearo decided to go to HP Integrity boxes running HP-UX, it ordered six and received them near the end of October. By December, it was running the SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) software in production, having replaced the HP9000s. It said that batch processing has since improved fourfold. Meanwhile, it took Griggs two weeks to get the hardware and migrate the SAP applications from the PA-RISC machines to the Itanium boxes, a job he did by himself.

"A month-and-a-half it took, from planning to testing to everything up and running," Rozman said.

Still, Aearo does have applications it couldn't migrate to Integrity. Its biggest is an Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) subsystem called Gentran Server, but Rozman said the company has been looking to eventually replace that anyway.

Intel and HP also hope to lure customers running Windows and Linux operating systems onto Itanium-based servers. Linux is a particular focus for Itanium proponents, including the Itanium Solutions Alliance, a group formed to support the platform and help shops with software porting.

"Since Intel is a big supporter of the horizontal computing model, there is a large opportunity there," said Rob Shiveley, Intel's Itanium marketing manager. "We're taking that into the mission-critical space. We're creating opportunities instead of having proprietary vendors locking users in."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Mark Fontecchio, News Writer.

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