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Why Itanium Has A Long Life Ahead Of It

Peter Judge
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HP gives customers a migration path away from its Itanium servers, says Peter Judge. That doesn’t mean it wants them to leave

Hewlett-Packard has a tricky job talking about its Integrity business critical servers. It wants to wax lyrical on how it is different from its rivals – but that very difference can look like a lack of confidence, when the underlying platform, Itanium, has spent the last year on the defensive.

Oracle talks loudly about a converged stack where everything is based on its own technology, right form the SPARC chips up to the Exadata database at the software layer.  That’s the real reason why Oracle CEO  Larry Ellison said that Itanium was doomed and proposed to stop supporting its software on HP’s Itanium servers.

A year and one massive lawsuit on, HP has extracted a promise from Oracle to go on supporting Itanium, and Intel has delivered faster chips for those HP servers. So how positive could HP be at the launch of a chip family which has been dismissed so vehemently and so often?

Mission critical movement

Here is the difficult part for HP. When it presents its new servers, it is talking about a blade system, which combines with other servers from its range. It also promises users can move loads from Itanium to x86 servers, and from its HP-UX operating system onto Windows and Linux.

You don’t have to sympathise with Larry Ellison to have this question cross your mind: how long till all HP-UX customers move across? Intel’s x86 Xeon processors benefit from huge economies of scale, and the Windows and Linux systems have been making huge strides. Surely at some point the price-performance gulf will be too wide to ignore, won’t it?.

But this argument has been heard before, in the 1990s, when we all expected mainframes to be wiped out by smaller Unix systems. Steadily the less mission-critical loads would be peeled off those big machines and tacked onto more cost-effective, smaller servers.

That didn’t happen of course. The new applications went onto the newer systems, and they evolved into mission-critical systems themselves, such as HP’s Superdome, but mainframes still carried on.

So now, when we hear that the Unix ecosystem is doomed, we should take some perspective, and expect a similar process to occur.  There seems every reason to expect Unix to last as long as the mainframes it failed to dislodge

Why Unix is here to stay

Firstly, HP has a ten-year roadmap for HP-UX, and that plan does not include porting it to x86. That would involve a lot of work for HP, and any customer taking that route would incur massive costs on moving their applications across to a different Intel platform. All for little or no benefit.  Sun tried porting its Solaris to x86, and everyone else should learn from that.

The second is that HP reports – and we have no reason to doubt it – that its Unix customers are very loyal. According to vice president of business critical systems for EMEA Mark Payne, they still see plenty of performance benefits in the Itanium platform, and would not move across until the x86 platform can match that. Itanium-based systems like Integrity have better mission-critical performance, and users won’t move away until, at the very least, x86 can equal that, said HP.

Unix systems are obviously changing their role in the data centre, and no one at HP’s event actually suggested they would start to win back business against x86 servers. However, there was a clear expectation that the end of the Oracle lawsuit and the new chips would unlock demand from uncertain customers.

And yes, HP people do expect new business. Some people that have ported applications of Itanium now want to port them back, said Payne. And there is also a possibility of consolidating business from other Unix systems. If HP’s “open” approach really does make a more comfortable home for Unix systems within a converged infrastructure, Payne says he hopes to scoop up Unix customers from HP’s rivals.

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