For now, HP's Itanic is still sailing

Intel’s Itanium processor has treaded a very thin line ever since its introduction in 2001. Today, the entire architecture relies on one single hardware vendor – HP – but the company has been slowly, steadily, carving its exit strategy.

Despite HP’s $690 million nod at the continued marketing of Intel Itanium-based HP products, ensuring that the upcoming Poulson Itanium will be marketed and further supported until 2017 (when Kittson, the successor to Poulson should arrive), after Poulson, however, all bets are off.

HP is in a position where, in spite of its 140,000-strong client base for Itanium, it can shift hardware to Xeon-based products over the course of the next two years, while it continues to support Poulson. It’s a safe bet that it will be done as Oracle, which stopped developing for Itanium and HP-UX, in favour of its in-house Sun SPARC-based servers, is by and large one of the reasons Itanium is still around.

Oracle and HP are locked in a bitter feud over head-hunting, Itanium, and someone playing the odd round of golf one too many times with the enemy. It isn’t very likely that Oracle will do a 180 on its decision to hang up the Itanium boots, and with that, a huge client portfolio goes away. Of course, it could be argued this is nothing more than Oracle’s attempt to leverage its Sun SPARC server hardware and dropping Itanium support. HP tried fighting this in court, but the fall-back plan can simply be to shuffle clients along to Xeon, where Oracle cannot afford to back out.

HP already has the ability, but maybe not the supply capacity, to let Itanium fall flat on its face. It has ported HP-UX to run on x86, it has started supplementing its Superdome servers with Xeon-powered blades and although it hasn’t been successful in pushing for Xeon-Itanium socket compatibility, many features like I/Os, chipset and integrated memory controllers are already there.

Intel, which recently sank its Itanium Software Alliance and fended off rumours it was reshuffling engineers from Itanium to Xeon, remains adamant Itanium is a goer.

One Intel representative said to TechEye: “Poulson is on track for launch later this year; with performance that’s expected to be more than double that of Tukwila. As we’ve said publicly before—based on customer requests, a new version of Itanium has historically been released every 2 years or more.”

Poulson, which will be released later this year, will introduce a new Itanium architecture. It’s an octa-core CPU, optimised for multi-threading (four threads), sporting 768KB of L2 cache per core and 54MB of L3 cache. It promises to deliver two-fold performance over its predecessor, and what will easily be a much better power/performance ratio over Tukwila, which was still built on 65nm.

So, what of Kittson, the successor to Poulson? “We expect Kittson to be consistent with this release schedule based on the information we have today,” the rep told us. Basically, Intel will continue to develop Itanium for as long as Intel wills it necessary.

Kittson, provided it launches in 2017, as scheduled, will require that both Intel and HP extend their support – both software and hardware, into 2020. An unlikely scenario, considering the state of affairs.

Still, whatever HP does, it will carry the blessing of Intel.

Margins on Itanium iron are higher than Xeons, we’re sure, but losing highly-profitable hardware and software to Oracle’s Sun Microsystems might smart more than HP is willing to take.