Very unseemly row breaks out over Intel Itanium

“At length did cross an Albatross:
Through the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God’s name.” – Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge

Oracle could never be really described as shy and retiring. So we weren’t surprised to see the software giant and Sun system server telling the world that it was phasing out Itanium support –  Microsoft and Red Hat made the decision to do that in the last two years. (See Intel, HP slam Oracle over Itanium support and Oracle puts bullet into Itanium corpse)

But what was interesting is that in this statement Oracle said that it was clear that the Itanium is coming to the end of its life as a processor, after discussions with senior management at Intel.

There’s no more senior manager at Intel than its CEO, Paul Otellini – and he was quoted in HP’s response to Oracle’s announcement – saying that the Itanium very much had a future.

HP, of course, was a fellow traveller with Intel on the road to develop a CPU based on EPIC architecture and rather controversially ported the very robust OpenVMS to the Itanium architecture. Intel has spent vast amounts of money on creating and developing the Itanium but over the last 10 years products have been delayed, support for it has been somewhat lukewarm from the rest of the industry “egosystem” and it’s not entirely clear what its fate is to be.

There was a time when Intel had very high hopes for this microprocessor, believing that widespread support from the PC industry would propel it into being one of the most important CPUs it ever designed. However, as Intel continued to grow market share and adopt 64 bit support for its X86 microprocessors, continuing questions about the future of the Itanium proliferated – and were met by senior Intel executives with shuffling of the seat, embarrassing coughs and “we’ll take that question offline” – a euphemism for “we’re not going to answer that question”.

HP’s reaction to the Oracle move was to attack it because it was trying to force its customers into buying Sun SPARC servers, desperate to maintain market share for its own big tin.  But finding out what customers want is a tricky business. HP’s apparently over the top reaction to the Oracle announcement conceals an uncomfortable fact for both HP and Intel.

The AlbatrossHP has a number of US government customers and contracts that it must fulfil, stretching years ahead into the future. It can’t just drop those customers without any consequences and Intel needs for several reasons to stay committed to the Itanium too. No one knows how many Itaniums Intel makes and sells in a year, but the fact is that its Xeon microprocessors vastly outnumber the EPIC-based chip in the corporate server market.

It’s rather hard to believe that Intel has ever made a profit or broken even on the Itanium family of chips – the amount of money it’s thrown into development, into partnership schemes and marketing is impossible for anyone on the outside to calculate.

No doubt the Itanium is something of an embarrassment for Intel – but it’s an embarrassment that it has to bear. It just doesn’t have to talk to anyone outside the charmed circle about this damnable chip that it just can’t get rid of – a bit like the albatross in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Coleridge.