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Itanium stakes its future on openness

Itanium stakes its future on openness

An industry consortium says Intel's beleaguered chip offers choices, but will that be enough to win it market share?

Itanium has an image problem. I know it, you know it, and the Itanium Solutions Alliance (ISA) knows it. In fact, if customers were migrating to the Itanium platform even half as readily as Intel had hoped for, the ISA might not even exist.

But they aren't.

If you ask most IT administrators why, their answer is almost universally the same. In a world where both AMD and Intel are offering high-performance 64-bit server chips built on the same x86 architecture that powers your existing applications, why on earth would you switch to an expensive, incompatible platform like Itanium?

According to Mike Mitsch, of NEC's Solutions Platform Group, however, that perception is largely a case of mistaken identity.

"When we're out talking to clients, it's very clear," Mitsch explained on behalf of the ISA, at the Alliance's strategy meeting in late January. "We're not talking to people about competing against Xeon systems. We're competing against Power, Sparc, and other RISC architectures."

Itanium's value proposition compared to those platforms, according to Mitsch, is openness. Say what you will about the so-called Wintel alliance, but traditional RISC-based Unix shops aren't all that accustomed to choices, either.

If you like Sparc processors, you buy your hardware from Sun (or Fujitsu, although the two companies' Sparc product lines are steadily merging), and you probably run Solaris. Likewise, if you like the Power architecture, you're stuck choosing from the system configurations IBM offers, and AIX is the Unix for you.

By contrast, when you're shopping for an Itanium server, you can take your pick of hardware from Bull, Fujitsu, Fujitsu-Siemens, Hitachi, HP, NEC, SGI , and Unisys. And although all eight companies are building systems with chips made by Intel, that doesn't mean Intel calls the shots at the ISA.

"Intel's on the board with us," says NEC's Mitsch. "They're an equal. They're not a leader, which is nice."

But all this is moot unless Itanium's openness goes even further. A Sun customer running an Oracle database on a Solaris Sparc server deciding to jump ship to SQL Server running on Windows Server 2003 on an Intel chip -- sounds unlikely, doesn't it? Itanium needs to offer more choices if it's going to win market share from RISC's Big Two.

Both HP and NEC currently offer HP-UX as an option on their Itanium servers, but that doesn't add much in the way of openness. To current IBM or Sun customers, a contract with HP to run HP-branded Unix on HP-branded Itanium hardware is hardly more attractive than the situation they're already in.

That leaves just one other option for enterprise customers who want to migrate their Unix apps to Itanium: Linux. Both Novell and Red Hat are already on board with the ISA and committed to delivering versions of their flagship Linux products for Itanium. If the ISA wants to solve the chip's image problem and win new customers, it had better get on the bandwagon and start pushing that option, hard.

There's just one problem. Itanium's backers wouldn't be the first to realize the strategic value of Linux for the midrange mission-critical server market. IBM already offers Linux on its Power line through relationships with Novell and Red Hat. And whereas independent projects have had Linux running on Sparc for some time, Sun CEO Scott McNealy has announced that the company is actively working with Red Hat to port the OS to Sun's latest Sparc T1 chips.

So, the ISA's efforts to re-brand Itanium as the "most open" high-end chip may be laudable, but they may also be doomed to failure -- because the real winner in that category is Linux. By delivering an OS that runs across Itanium, Power, Sparc, and x86, Linux could effectively create a brand new category: the industry-standard mission-critical server, one that breaks traditional siloed buying patterns and lets customers decide strictly on value-added features. (Remember folks, don't call them commodity servers.)

Let the high-end hardware wars begin.


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