Although not commercially successful when released in 2001, the original Itanium microprocessor, jointly developed by HP and Intel, gave birth the following year to the more long-lasting Itanium 2 family. After various iterations, the high-end chip platform is finally gaining traction in the local market. Typically used in enterprise servers requiring a 64-bit architecture and what's colloquially known as 'a bit of grunt' for mission-critical tasks, Itanium 2 chips have been built into hardware from Fujitsu, HP, NEC, SGI and Unisys.
"Itanium really has gone from its early embryonic days to being regarded as mainstream technology," HP Asia-Pacific representative to the Itanium Solutions Alliance (ISA), Harry Westendorp, said. "We're seeing it across all kinds of areas now: Itanium-based solutions are used across the board."
Fujitsu A/NZ manager of strategic products, Julian Badell, said Itanium servers were enabling users to consolidate infrastructure and, by association, their costs.
"One of the real benefits we're finding is that Itanium is an enabling technology helping to lower the cost of mission critical computing," he said. "We've seen customers moving from legacy systems to consolidating onto Itanium and getting economies of scale that help lower overall costs."
Regardless of its formidable performance statistics, the offer of server consolidation and the backing of some of the industry's biggest players, Itanium remains a niche technology because of its relative newness in the IT marketplace.
It is also hindered by the perception that it's only for larger businesses. There are no signs of that changing in the near future, despite the recent announcement from the ISA that over 10,000 applications are currently available on Itanium 2-based systems.
While Itanium solutions are built on explicitly parallel instruction computing (EPIC) architecture, it is reduced instruction set computer (RISC) and x-86-based servers that continue to dominate the APAC region. According to IT research fi rm, Gartner, the two had 38 per cent and 50 per cent market share respectively last year.
Against this, server analyst, Jennifer Wu, said Itanium had shown healthy growth, recording 35 per cent growth in unit shipments across the region in 2006. In Australia, HP contributed more than 90 per cent of Itanium server revenue last year.
"Itanium has gradually picked up momentum and increased its awareness and acceptance by users," she said.
The signs for 2007 also look reasonably positive, particularly with take-up in developing regions throughout Asia that are in the process of building IT infrastructure.
However, Itanium's overall server market share has grown just five per cent over the past few years, from one per cent in 2003 to six per cent in 2006.
Gartner fi gures suggest x86-based servers will continue to represent more than 80 per cent of shipment market share this year. RISC also remains relevant and is showing growth, albeit slow, particularly in developing regions such as India and China.
Looking ahead, the analyst group predicts it will become harder and harder for Itanium systems to differentiate themselves from the x86 market.
A key contributor to this will be customers becoming increasingly reluctant to migrate after initially investing in the technology, more so than lifting massive market share from x86.
The state of the local server market leads to a wider discussion of Itanium's competition in the market. Despite its supporters, Itanium's EPIC architecture does remain an "also-ran" in many pundits' books, compared to users of x86 architecture.
Similarly, RISC architecture in rival products, including Sun Microsystems' Sparc and IBM Power processors and the complex instruction set computer (CISC) architecture used in mainframe computers, are also failing to make a real dent in the market.