Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Oracle Ceases Development For Intel's Itanium Chip

Software giant Oracle announced overnight that it has ceased all development work relating to Intel’s Itanium microprocessor. In so doing it reminded the world that the Itanium chip exists at all. “Intel management made it clear that their strategic focus is on their x86 microprocessor and that Itanium was nearing the end of its life,” Oracle said in a statement.

The move is no doubt a blow to Intel’s meager Itanium business, but it’s surprising that Oracle waited this long. Both Microsoft and RedHat announced they were jumping ship last year. Microsoft said last year that Windows Server 2008 R2 would be the last operating system to support Itanium. RedHat dropped its support with the release of Enterprise Linux 6.

From an operating system standpoint that leaves HP-UX, Hewlett-Packard’s variant of Unix as the only real option, which makes some sense since HP sells nearly all the Itanium-based servers on the market.

It’s also a bit of a turn of events. As CNet’s Stephen Shankland points out, it was only five years ago Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said “There is no more important platform for Oracle than HP and Itanium.”

That of course was before Oracle owned Sun Microsystems. Since then, and after former HP CEO Mark Hurd left to become an Oracle co-president, Ellison has turned bashing HP into something of a hobby. It wasn’t hard to detect a bit of a sneer as Oracle’s press release pointed out that in his strategy remarks last week, HP CEO Léo Apotheker didn’t mention Itanium once.

Intel had gone to a great deal of effort to develop the 64-bit server chip, and at the beginning of the last decade portrayed it as a significant leap forward in server computing. The problem was that it wasn’t backward compatible with existing software written for Intel’s standard x86 chips, and so software meant to run on Itanium systems required extra work or had to developed separately.

This caused the kind of controversy that only computer scientists could love and prompted one of the more interesting chapters in the decades-old rivalry between Intel and its much smaller rival Advanced Micro Devices. AMD suggested a very different approach to 64-bit computing by simply extending the standard x86 platform. Software initially developed for standard 32-bit chips could run without any of the extra work on a 64-bit system. The industry liked it, and within a few years AMD had implemented the idea on its Opteron server chips. During 2005 and 2006 AMD built up enough momentum to take away some of Intel’s share of the server market.

Under pressure, Intel changed its mind and, beginning in 2004, started putting out its own x86-compatible 64-bit chips. Its Intel64 technology is now a standard across its server, desktop and notebook chips. And it got most of its share of the server market back with its Xeon line.

Despite the fact that it never really caught on, Intel is still putting out Itanium chips, though it’s really a niche product. It updated the line last year with the Itanium 9300. It also has two future chips in the family still in the pipeline, one codenamed Poulson, the other codenamed Kittson. Time will tell if either ever see the light of day. Few companies buy servers built around Itanium chips.

HP was an early partner in the chip’s development, just last week announced a new Itanium-based blade system, and continues to sell its Itanium-based Superdone line. However the HP unit responsible for selling those systems, Business Critical Systems, is showing no sign of progress. In its most recent quarter, revenues fell slightly to $555 million from the year-ago period.

And while it will continue to run existing Oracle installations and still enjoy Oracle support, these machines won’t be able to run future versions of Oracle’s database. That’s not going to help HP sell any more of these boxes.


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