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Microsoft Windows drops Intel Itanium

First Red Hat dropped support for Intel's Itanium chip, and now Microsoft has done the same. But does the second shoe to drop really matter?

Microsoft's decision to drop Windows Server support from the Intel Itanium chip isn't a big loss from a revenue standpoint, but there is symbolic importance to the move.

Windows accounts for only about 5% of Itanium sales, according to an Intel spokesman. And Microsoft's decision comes a few months after Red Hat Enterprise Linux dropped support for Itanium. Together, these events illustrate the slow decline of the Unix market and the failed promise of the Itanium processor, according to industry observers.

But there are some Windows-on-Itanium users out there. "Based on what I'm hearing from our members, customers running Windows on Itanium today are disappointed with Microsoft's decision," said Joan Jacobs, the president and executive director of the Itanium Solutions Alliance, an Itanium end user group.

Jonathan Eunice, the founder and principal IT adviser at Illuminata Inc., said that the news is a big deal. Itanium backers touted the fact that Itanium ran on multiple platforms, including Windows, as an "advantage and differentiator" compared with Unix processors such as Power and Sparc. Indeed, in October Jacobs touted the fact that Itanium supported 10 operating systems, and Windows Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, Novel SUSE Linux and HP-UX were the most prevalent. Two of these most prominent OSes will now discontinue support.

"Only a few percent of Itanium sales depend on Windows, so the economic blow isn't enormous," Eunice said. "But Windows and Linux were both key to Itanium's volume aspirations. Neither is now well supported there. So this is the second shoe to drop."

Waning support for Itanium
Microsoft will drop Itanium support, because the X86 architecture has improved so much, according to Microsoft senior technical project manager Dan Reger. Intel recently released an eight-core Xeon code-named "Nehalem-EX," while AMD released a 12-core Opteron code-named "Magny Cours." In Microsoft's eyes, the capabilities of the x86 chips have caught up with Itanium.

"The natural evolution of the x86 64-bit ("x64") architecture has led to the creation of processors and servers which deliver the scalability and reliability needed for today's 'mission-critical' workloads," Reger wrote.

Itanium's biggest installed base is Hewlett-Packard Unix boxes running HP-UX, OpenVMS and NonStop. HP accounted for about 95% of Itanium server shipments in the third quarter of 2009, according to Gartner. In that respect, Itanium has pretty much followed the path of other Unix processors -- IBM's Power servers run IBM AIX and i operating systems; Sun Microsystems' Sparc boxes mainly run Solaris. All of these systems can run Linux.

Despite the blow, Microsoft said that it will offer extended support for Windows Server 2008 R2 on Itanium until July 10, 2018. And Itanium will continue to be supported by its main operating system, HP-UX, and used mainly as a large Unix box hosting large database and online transaction processing applications.

Itanium with its fast I/O and extensive high-availability features, along with its CPU performance, was designed as a "big iron platform," Eunice said.

"It still does that well, and the likes of HP-UX, NonStop and OpenVMS were always the OSes best paired with it," he said. "Even so, it helped flexibility to have the option of running Windows and Linux there too."

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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