Arik Hesseldahl

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HP’s Itanium Business Is Like “Remake of ‘Weekend At Bernie’s’”

Oracle’s lawyers are working late ahead of the abbreviated holiday week. I’ve just received a heavily-redacted new court filing (see it below) in its legal fight with Hewlett-Packard that contains, in the starkest language yet, what Oracle thinks of HP’s plans for its business of selling servers based on Intel’s Itanium chip.

The document is a routine filing concerning the timing of the trial and the discovery process. In it, Oracle says that what documents it has received from HP confirms what Oracle has been arguing since this whole thing started: That HP and Intel plan to let the Itanium processor die once it has released two more generations, something HP and Intel have both denied. “HP and Intel have a contractual commitment that Itanium will continue through the next two generations of microprocessors …”

Worse, Oracle alleges that the only reason the chip is still available at all is that “HP is paying Intel to keep it going.” It goes on: “HP has secretly contracted with Intel to keep churning out Itaniums so that HP can maintain the appearance that a dead microprocessor is still alive. The whole thing is a remake of Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Why all the trouble over so obscure a chip? Oracle says it’s all about the support fees that Intel charges. HP makes a lot of money, Oracle says, charging for service and support of its HP UX operating system, which runs on the Itanium chip; it loses money when customers move to systems running more conventional x86-based chips. As Oracle puts it in the filing: “HP achieves a far lower “attach rate” (meaning it gets few service contracts) on the operating systems like Linux that are prevalent on servers running x86 microprocessors. Thus when customers migrate to new platforms, HP loses the service contract. This is a multi-billion dollar problem for HP.” It also helps HP remain competitive with IBM and Oracle’s Sun Microsystems business, Oracle argues in a redacted passage.

“These factors led HP to craft a top-secret plan to create a false perception that Itanium still had a future,” Oracle says in the filing. “HP understands that the future prospects of IT products drive customer purchasing decisions. A buyer who knew that Intel saw no future for Itanium, and was only continuing to invest in the line pursuant to a contractual obligation, would devalue the future prospects of Itanium servers and be less inclined to buy.”

“Oracle Sun has been a victim of this, and according to HP’s documents an intended victim. So why is Oracle the defendant in this case? We now understand it is because Oracle’s decision to stop making new versions of its software for the Itanium system was devastating to HP because it undermined the rationale for paying Intel [redacted] to sustain the illusion of a long-term future for Itanium. Oracle had told too much of the truth.”

HP, whose PR team is working equally late, just sent this emailed statement:

Oracle’s latest filing is nothing more than a desperate delay tactic designed to extend the paralyzing uncertainty in the marketplace created when Oracle announced in March 2011 — in a clear breach of contract — that it would no longer support HP’s Itanium platform. The fact remains that Oracle’s decision to cut off support for Itanium was an illicit business strategy it conjured to try to force Itanium customers into buying Sun servers, and destroy choice in the marketplace. This filing is just the latest in its ongoing campaign to shore up its failing Sun server business and starve thousands of existing Itanium customers who rely on their Itanium processors for mission-critical activities.

As Oracle well knows, HP and Intel have a contractual commitment to continue to sell mission-critical Itanium processers to our customers through the next two generations of microprocessors, thus ensuring the availability of Itanium through at least the end of the decade. HP is resolved to enforcing Oracle’s commitments to HP and our shared customers and will continue to take actions to protect its customers’ best interests. It is time for Oracle to quit pursuing baseless accusations and honor its commitments to HP and to our shared customers in a timely manner.

Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy had no comment, saying Intel is not a party to the lawsuit, and doesn’t comment on confidential agreements it may or may not have with other companies. Intel CEO Paul Otellini has said in the past the Intel has a long-term roadmap for Itanium that goes beyond the next two generations already disclosed.

Since this whole episode first erupted in March, and escalated into a lawsuit in May, I’ve called it a very public fight about a very obscure chip. Oracle, perhaps looking for something new to fight with HP about, said it would cease developing software created for systems using Intel’s Itanium chip, arguing that it looked like it was going to be retired in the near-ish future. HP, which is the only server vendor worth mentioning that sells Itanium-based systems, was horrified, as was Intel, if for no other reason than they spent a decade or two developing it in hopes it would be the superchip of the future.

Then the future arrived, and it didn’t quite turn out that way. Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices found a way to do 64-bit computing that the marketplace liked better, Intel ultimately embraced the same method for mainstream server chips, and Itanium went on to be a specialized niche product. However, those who use it are a vocal bunch. Some of them petitioned Oracle to change its mind. It hasn’t budged.

So now you know the background. The original filing is embedded below, via Scribd. The best parts are in the first several pages. Happy reading.

Oracle Itanium Filing: “Weekend At Bernie’ss

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus