Dell joins Itanium fray -- again

Dell joins Itanium fray -- again

When Dell launches a product you know a technology has come of age. The company yesterday launched its Intel Itanium 2-based PowerEdge 3250 server, marking the company's re-entry into the 64-bit computing market.

Dell joins a throng of vendors, including IBM and HP, flying the Itanium flag this week as Intel prepares to unveil the next generation of its Itanium 2 chip, known as Madison, next Monday.

The company's first swing at Itanium came in May 2001 when it released the PowerEdge 7150. But the economic downturn and corporate indifference to 64-bit computing saw it skip the following generation of Intel's McKinley chips.

Now that Dell is back, what's changed?

"We think early adopters are a high-performance compute clustering market," product marketing manager for Dell Servers, Russ Ray, said.

The 2U, dual Intel Itanium 2 processor server comes packed with 16GB of DDRM, Dual internal disk drives with integrated RAID, embedded server management, and Active ID.

It also supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux AS & WS 2.1 and Windows 2003 Enterprise server.

As such, Ray said the product was ideal for the 3250's target audience: High Performance Computing Clusters (HPCC).

The manufacturing, energy, life sciences, digital media, and financial industries were ready for 64-bit computing for process-intensive applications, he said.

Itanium 2 systems would also run in mainstream enterprise data centers, Ray said, but applications designed for 645-bit architectures were still lacking.

"This is a test case for the Dell standardisation curve," he said, noting enterprise adoption would be slow until Itanium 2 became a more standardised offering.

Test units of the PowerEdge 3250's are already running at select customer locations.

Ray would not reveal further details about deployment numbers.

He said that Dell was counting on winning the price/performance battle to expand Itanium 2's presence in large-scale computing environments.

Pricing information was not available prior to the official launch date.

On the operating system front, Ray conceded that Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 still fell short of meeting the demands of HPCC environments.

"Windows is not, in our view, fully there yet," he said.

Dell's dual Linux and Windows strategy remains, although the company expects more units to ship with a Linux OS.

"It's a matter of time in the chair. Windows has been out for less time that Linux has," Ray said.

Analyst at Technology Biz Research, Brooks Gray, did not believe the Itanium announcements by Dell and others would speed the adoption of Itanium, although he agreed that the high-performance computing market was ready.

"There is kind of a crossover point that I see where Itanium and Xeon price performance [figures] cross," Gray said. The time is coming soon when the price of a 1.5Ghz Itanium 2 system will deliver more performance than an equally priced 2.8Ghz 32-bit Xeon chip, thus tempting customers.

"Do they feel it's an absolute requirement to have that 25 percent performance boost, or will they opt for the 9 percent price performance boost at the Xeon level?" he said.

HP is clearly hoping enterprises will need the performance gain. But even more critical will be the availability of more 64-bit applications.

When it came to 32-bit Intel-based servers running HP-UX, 99 percent of HP's revenue stream comes from packaged application such as Oracle, SAP, and PeopleSoft, vice-president of marketing for HP enterprise storage and servers, Mark Hudson, said.

"We view 32-bit as not going away," he said. "There are many applications that do not require 64-bit capabilities."

But by the same token, Hudson said the company was making steady progress toward encouraging its customers to move from HP's own PA-RISC and Alpha architectures to Itanium 2.

"You need to look at the bet as a long -term bet. We believe we have placed our chips on the right one," he said. "When you look at the road map for Itanium you see not just Madison but Deerfield multi-processors on board next year, so the road map is looking quite promising."

Hudson said the advent of Itanium 2 was allowing HP to steer more of its R&D into developing that as an industry standard architecture, rather than PA-RISC and Alpha.

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