High Society

Having cracked the low end and mid tier markets some time ago, Intel is desperate to be taken seriously in the high end computing space. Key to this drive is its Itanium 2 family of processors and its longstanding partnerships with the likes of HP and Microsoft.

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By  Greg Wilson Published  October 27, 2003

I|~||~||~|Having cracked the low end and mid tier markets some time ago, Intel is desperate to be taken seriously in the high end computing space. Key to this drive is its Itanium 2 family of processors and its longstanding partnerships with the likes of HP and Microsoft. While poor economic conditions and lukewarm support from the IT industry has hamstrung the chip manufacturer so far, Intel believes it is on the verge of big things.

Intel has been investing in its 64-bit computing architecture for the last 10 years. It desperately wants to ease the grip held by the Unix/RISC vendors on the heart of the data centre and take a slice of the high end computing market.

Key to this ambition is Itanium. According to Intel and co-developer HP, the chip delivers comparable if not better performance at much lower price points, and drives open standards into the high end computing environment.

Reinforcing Intel and HP’s story is Microsoft’s recently rejuvenated 64-bit computing story — namely Windows Server 2003 Enterprise and Data Centre Editions. Combined, Intel believes it has the technology and — maybe more importantly — the partnerships to fundamentally re-draw the high end computing landscape.

In reality, Itanium’s early progress has been slow. Intel’s initial 64-bit processor didn’t evolve much past a showroom model, mainly due to a mixture of platform maturity and the lack of support from hardware players and independent software vendors (ISVs). The second generation of chips, codenamed McKinley, proved marginally more successful, finding a niche as a testing and development platform. But lacklustre vendor support and a tough economic environment combined to hamstring efforts to unseat Unix/RISC vendors from their entrenched market position.

In August Intel renewed its campaign to dominate enterprise computing with the third installment of Itanium — Madison. The revamped Itanium 2 chip promised between 30% and 50% performance improvement over previous generations. During September, Intel delivered a further low voltage Deerfield processor, targeted directly at the dual processor Unix/RISC market and touting a rock bottom price point.

“The launch of Deerfield for duel processor environments will see it [the price] come in at below US$1000 per CPU,” promises Ferhad Patel, strategic relations manager, Intel Middle East. After the low level adoption of previous iterations of IA-64, Intel is hoping Madison will prove its hook into the data centre. Reinforcing the chip manufacturer’s argument, is a much more enthusiastic response from both hardware and software vendors.

“What we’re going to see now is Madison [based machines] actually at the backend, running systems,” says Patel. “The old argument was that there weren’t enough applications available, so we have worked with the high volume [database] vendors, application [development] environment [vendors] and at the backend [enterprise resource planning software players],” he adds.

On the hardware side, both HP and IBM already have Madison-machines ready to go, and a busy launch timetable is planned for the rest of the year. “All the big players are onboard... and tendering with Itanium,” says Patel. Intel and HP have already started to rollout some customer wins at the European level, adding further credibility to claims that Madison is ready and able to address the high end computing market. Although Itanium machines have shipped to high end accounts, particularly in the oil & gas sector, the exact number of machines is not know.

According to Samer Karawi, marketing manager, business critical systems, HP, most high end tenders contain requests for Itanium-based servers. “During 2004, Itanium will become the mainstream in the high end and 64-bit. We are starting to see the shift in our revenue today, between the RISC platform and Itanium,” he says. However, the scale and speed of Itanium deployment remains a matter of debate. Before the market reaches anything resembling critical mass, several issues still to be addressed. Arguably the most pressing issue is software support. Despite commitment from major software players, such as Oracle, SAP and Microsoft, analysts query the strength of Itanium’s fledgling application portfolio.

Microsoft’s timely delivery of Windows 2003 Enterprise and Data Centre editions and a 64-bit edition of SQL Server is a definite boost to Intel’s 64-bit campaign. Previously, the Redmond-based software vendor hadn’t evangelised its 64-bit computing story. “What has increased confidence in Itanium is real evidence of Microsoft’s renewed confidence,” says Andy Butler, vice president, Gartner Group. “We had the view that Microsoft’s lack of energy and commitment towards the data centre had held back high end Intel computing. With the launch of Windows 2003, Microsoft has definitely [said], ‘we are committed to high end Windows computing,’” he adds.

The software giant has made significant improvement to the reliability, manageability and security of the operating system. “With this version of the OS we have offered not only what is available on Unix, but we have added loads of extra stuff,” comments Haider Salloum, server marketing manager, Microsoft Middle East.

Despite the improvements, analysts still believe Microsoft’s operating system lags behind the functionality available in the leading Unix flavours. For instance, Windows 2003 still has to catch up in areas such as workload management, fail-over clustering, capacity on demand and virtual machine partitioning.

“People are worrying less and less about the basic reliance of the operating system, which is something they used to worry about. It is more about what goes around the OS,” comments Butler. “It is going to be another 18 months to two years before Microsoft can really offer a stack of added value software products. It will be the Longhorn release of Windows that will bring about parity between Windows and Unix,” he predicts.

But a strong Windows 64-bit OS candidate and database isn’t enough. There has to be an array of Itanium designed applications. However, many existing Itanium applications are merely ports, rather than native built 64-bit applications. “The fundamentals of designing an application on Itanium are dramatically different to designing an application for RISC or Intel’s IA-32 architecture,” explains Butler.

“[ISVs] are saying that they have an Itanium flavour of their product, even if all they have done is take their [Xeon] product and rolled it through an Itanium compiler. In reality it is going to take time,” he adds.

The hardware vendors are also aware of the scarcity of applications. “Customers have to look at the application side,” says Andy Parkinson, X-Series regional manager, IBM Middle East & Pakistan. “If the applications are there, and there are price/performance benefits, then there is a real reason to migrate,” he adds.

Itanium’s application story is further weakened by the absence of an integrated development environment. Although Microsoft released VisualStudio 2003 alongside SQL Server and Windows 2003 editions, its 64-bit development environment still needs to mature.

“Although there is support from Microsoft with [Windows] Server 2003 and SQL Server, there isn’t an integrated development environment,” says Brian Richardson, senior programme director, Meta Group (US). “Once Microsoft steps up efforts to create an integrated development environment, you will see a much more rapid transition,” he adds. More information on an integrated development environment should become available at Microsoft’s developer conference in October.

However, one wildcard in Intel’s 64-bit computing story is Linux. Globally, the Unix-like operating system has proven itself as a viable, cost effective alternative to both Unix and, to a lesser extent, Windows. Combined with Madison hardware, Linux servers could start to appear, running mainstream applications such as ERP. “We have seen very little interest in running Windows on Madison-based Itanium systems. We are actually seeing somewhat more uptake of Itanium with Linux,” says Richardson.

The Middle East market, in comparison to the US, has remained relatively Linux free. Outside university installations or really high end Linux clusters run by oil & gas organisations in the region, the open source operating system has still to gain mainstream acceptance. However, there are signs this is changing — in recent months Oracle and HP have both noticeably increased the amount of noise they are making around Linux, while IBM is also stepping up its Linux marketing.

“More customers are turning their attention to Linux in an attempt to reduce licensing costs,” says Pakinson. “The port from Unix to a Linux IA-64 bit environment is also a lot easier,” he adds.

Pakinson is not alone in believing the Linux is gaining greater momentum. According to Joseph Hanania, regional manager, HP Middle East, the Unix-like OS is climbing onto more corporate agendas by sheer virtue of the potential cost savings it offers. “Few companies are ready to change their architecture today, but there are a large numbers of customers experimenting with it,” he adds.

The renewed Linux interest is almost certainly attributable to the more vocal and available support in the Middle East. “Companies weren’t looking at Linux before, because there wasn’t a serious support structure. But this is changing now,” says Ayman Abouseif, senior director of marketing, Oracle Eastern Central Europe, Middle East & Africa.

Linux gives Intel and its hardware partners another dimension to their collective price/performance messages around Itanium. However, analysts are urging users that are considering a migration to Itanium to look carefully at the price/performance arguments of Intel and its partners.

Far from being ‘cut & dried,’ as some vendors claim, price/performance differentials will continue to vary as Itanium and RISC technology continue to evolve. For example, HP’s PA800 processor, due to arrive at the end of the year, is likely to offer better performance than Madison chips.

“The price/performance argument is not clear against PA RISC. PA RISC and Madison will leapfrog each other in terms of performance over the next two years,” says Richardson.

Although Madison has demonstrated parity with the best RISC architectures it still has to exhibit a “compelling reason,” to migrate, says Butler. Other vendors, in particular IBM with its Power 4 based chips, are still competing aggressively alongside Itanium machines. “The fact is that Itanium hasn’t yet proved a performance advantage over RISC that is compelling. I don’t think that compelling argument is going to be there before the launch of Monticedo, [which is] two years away,” predicts Butler.

Obviously the Unix vendors, particularly the likes of Sun and IBM, will continue to innovate their respective RISC architecture. The RISC vendors can still lead the Itanium architecture in terms of multi-core chips and ISV partners providing multithreaded software. Intel isn’t due to deliver a multi-core processor until Tanglewood in 2006.

“RISC is still evolving and the prices will continue to come down, so they will remain competitive,” says Parkinson. “Customers have to keep looking at this all the time because the picture is changing all the time,” he adds. With RISC evolution continuing, Intel will find it even harder to put together a compelling reason to migrate. Reasons to leap to IA-64 become more elusive when considering the challenges of migration —namely equipping the IT department with IA-64 skills and experience.

According to Butler, the software migration, assuming an organisation is running a package application suite, is relatively straightforward. But trouble begins if a company is planning to port inhouse applications. “If companies have their own software stack it puts far more responsibility on them to train up their own development people and make them experts in Itanium. And that isn’t going to happen overnight,” he says.

Hardware migration could also pose a hurdle, particularly as few big iron servers enable organisations to easily transition between IA-32 or Unix, towards Itanium. Without that, most companies will need to plan the logistics of their migration carefully to ensure that Itanium will fit with their existing IT infrastructure.

In the long run, Intel hopes to leverage similar economies of scale that have made it dominant in the PC and low level server markets. Until Itanium builds the necessary critical mass in the market, however, IA-64-based machines will carry a premium price tag, and much touted price/performance benefits of Itanium will prove elusive. “The long term promise is good, but until we see a real, sustainable volume market for Itanium, it is going to be difficult to draw some hard conclusions about [Itanium’s] price/performance versus RISC,” says Butler.

Before Intel can hope to generate a ‘sustainable’ volume market, its hardware partners have to complete rolling out Itanium machines throughout their product line. At the time of going to press, HP had two-way and four-way servers based on Madison, as well as the entire SuperDome range. Eight-way and 16-way boxes are due for release in November.

IBM is also planning to rapidly rollout its range of Madison machines towards the end of 2003. “Our big [Itanium] servers are yet to arrive. They should be here by the year end,” says Parkinson. The advent of Madison certainly heralds another phase of Itanium development for Intel and HP. However, the IA-64 platform will not upset the current status quo in the data centre in the immediate future.

In many respects the components necessary for its widespread adoption will arrive by the end of the year — namely support from the likes of Microsoft, Oracle, SAP and other ISVs, as well a broad range of products to choose from.

To catalyst the transition from a Unix/RISC-centric high end computing realm requires is native Itanium applications and a wide range of vendors to be actively promoting it as their high end computing platform of choice.||**||

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