When Intel rolls out the third generation of its Itanium processor as expected this week, it will be greeted by growing vendor momentum behind 64-bit computing, but enterprise customers are still on the fence when it comes to bringing in the more powerful machines to support key applications and networks.
The launch of the latest version of Itanium 2, code-named Madison, comes with widespread vendor support, a marked change from earlier Itanium releases, when HP and Unisys were the primary companies to roll out products using the 64-bit Intel chip. This time Dell will announce an Itanium 2-based product, and IBM, which waited nearly a year before rolling out a server based on Intel's second-generation Itanium chip (code-named McKinley), will have two new servers running the Madison processor.
The chip will come in three versions: a 1.5-GHz processor with 6MB of cache, a 1.4-GHz processor with 4MB of cache, and a 1.3-GHz chip with 3MB of cache. The earlier Itanium processors ran to speeds of 1GHz with 3MB of cache.
Faster-processing 64-bit systems historically have been used by the high-performance computing community, that needs the speeds and the expanded memory to handle heavy-duty number crunching. But businesses also are beginning to look at 64-bit capabilities to run business-intelligence applications, for example, or to handle ever-expanding ERP deployments.
"This is the first time we'll see an architecture that's capable enough to start to get equal interest not just on technical computing, where McKinley got it, but also as a general-purpose platform in the 64-bit space," a vice president at Forrester Research, Brad Day, said.
Already, software vendors have been working with beta versions of the Madison chip to port applications over to the new platform. "It's a good indication that the winds are starting to move in (Itanium's) direction," Day said.
Application support ultimately would be the key in determining how Itanium 2-based systems fare, analysts said.
"Madison is really the first systems architecture that we believe can start to be competitive against Unix RISC alternatives," Day said. "What needs to evolve is the breadth of horizontal applications on this platform, as well as applications that are vertically based."
Major software vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP support Itanium 2, but expanding the software portfolio for Itanium 2 still has a long way to go, he says. About 100 software vendors support Itanium 2, whereas about 15,000 applications are optimised for Unix RISC.
Business customers also had been slow to warm up to Itanium, which now accounts for only about 3 pe rcent of all servers shipped, Day said. Dell initially would aim its Itanium 2-based server at high-performance computing customers, opting to wait for businesses to more widely embrace the platform.