June 26, 2002 5:10 AM PDT

HP jump-starts Red Hat's Itanium agenda

Hewlett-Packard's strong backing for Intel's Itanium processor line has accelerated Red Hat's plans to create a version of its flagship Advanced Server Linux for the high-end chip family.

Red Hat sells a version of the Linux operating system for Itanium systems, but hadn't planned to move Advanced Server to Itanium until late 2003. But HP, the co-inventor of the Itanium family, persuaded the company to advance the schedule by about a year, a Red Hat executive said.

"We did pull in our timing for support of Itanium 2 systems, based on the HP business and technical partnership (with Red Hat) that was announced recently," Mike Evans, vice president for business development at the Linux company, confirmed this week. Red Hat also advanced the schedule for a workstation version, used by technical people such as chip designers and programmers, Evans said. Both products are expected in early fall of 2002.

The changes illustrate the behind-the-scenes deals that can make the difference between a new technology catching on or fizzling out--even technology backed by giants such as Intel. And HP, which created the idea behind the Itanium line then handed off the design to Intel to commercialize, arguably has at least as much riding on Itanium as Intel does.

HP is moving its entire server line to Itanium over the next few years; the last new models of its older PA-RISC processor family will arrive in 2004. The success of its Itanium products--everything from workstations to million-dollar multiprocessor servers--depends in large measure on how well software runs on the new chips. These servers, in turn, drive sales of services, software and storage systems.

Intel's Itanium family, a still-immature product line that has been afflicted by years of delays, is a 64-bit chip line that's more sophisticated but very different from 32-bit Intel chips such as Pentium and Xeon. The first serious Itanium family products are expected to begin arriving as soon as next month when the second-generation Itanium 2 debuts.

Red Hat isn't the only Itanium partnership HP has been working on. BEA Systems, which sells software for running Java e-commerce programs, will first debut its WebLogic Itanium product on HP-UX, HP's version of Unix. On Tuesday, though, BEA announced it's working to design its Java engine for use on several different operating systems on Itanium 2.

HP started discussing the Linux work with Red Hat in October, said Clifford Loeb, alliances manager for HP's Linux business development organization and the person who led HP's talks with Red Hat. "We can make the market in this and help drive Linux into the enterprise with Advanced Server technology," Loeb said.

Advancing Red Hat's Itanium agenda helps to ensure that core operating system software is in place for customers who are considering buying Itanium, or for software makers, such as database companies, that are trying to decide when to support Itanium.

A helping hand
Red Hat is particularly important because it employs many programmers who work on the GCC "compiler," software that translates human-written programs into instructions that a computer can understand. Sophisticated compilers are key to taking advantage of Itanium's design.

HP requires all the help it can get to accomplish what it needs as it converges its own servers and those it acquired from Compaq Computer onto the Itanium. The company is backing three major operating systems for Itanium--Windows, Linux and its HP-UX version of Unix--as well as two more specialized ones, OpenVMS and NonStop Kernel.

"I think the general consensus is that (the 64-bit version of) Windows...is not yet ready for prime time at the high end of the market. The proprietary HP-UX clearly is, and Linux is a wild card," said Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. "HP, by making this move, covers all three bases."

In comparison, rival Sun Microsystems pushes its own UltraSparc processors and its Solaris version of Unix for all but low-end servers. IBM, while boosting Linux on its Intel servers and Power4 processors, canceled development and sales of an Itanium version of its AIX Unix product.

Red Hat's Advanced Server, which debuted in May, changes less frequently and has higher-end features than preceding versions of the company's software. It's designed to appeal to software companies and, indeed, database software giant Oracle and others have strongly endorsed Advanced Server.

Red Hat also planned a comparable high-end workstation product, which was scheduled to debut in March 2003 on 32-bit Intel systems, Loeb said, but HP convinced Red Hat not only to create an Itanium version but also to introduce it first, this year.

Red Hat's current Itanium versions of Linux have been more popular on workstations than on servers, Evans said, but the company expects demand for both products to increase as Itanium 2 computers arrive.

"We saw increasing demand from customers migrating from Unix for 64-bit capabilities," Evans said. "We also saw HP making bold market commitments for their upcoming Itanium-based systems. Having product in the market ahead of Windows is an added bonus."

Whether Red Hat will beat Windows to market is debatable. Microsoft will release version 1.2 of its Limited Edition version of Windows for Itanium in July, said Velle Kolde, lead product manger for Windows 64-bit server products.

You scratch my back...
HP and Red Hat declined to disclose terms of their deal, but both companies said the partnership would make money.

"This partnership has a lot of real positive benefits for both companies," Loeb said. "It improves Linux for our customers, makes the market better and drives revenue for both companies."

Red Hat leads the Linux market, according to market analysis firm IDC, and in North America, Red Hat is the only game in town, Loeb said.

Red Hat said the HP partnership increases costs for the company, but it expects "the revenue to exceed any costs in the efforts," Evans said. The Itanium development, testing, marketing, sales and support work are closely aligned with the other Intel software, he said.

"The tighter alliance and relationship with Red Hat...makes a ton of sense," said Giga Information Group analyst Brad Day. The next question is how well HP will support Linux versions of its higher-level Unix software for tasks such as tying computing resources to specific tasks.

Triggering competitive instincts
The HP partnership also could advance Red Hat's position compared with Microsoft and competitors in the Unix world such as Sun and IBM.

Itanium is increasing Red Hat's ambition. Evans calls the processor a "nice extension" to Linux's core market on 32-bit Intel and Advanced Micro Devices' processors. "I am seeing a 'Linux fabric' taking hold in the computing infrastructure, and the Unix variants are starting to smell more and more like VMS"--a high-quality operating system that's consigned to a small niche.

Microsoft sells its Limited Edition version of Windows for Itanium systems and later this year will sell a full-fledged product. Both are based on the "Whistler" code base that debuted with Windows XP for desktop computers.

Although some features are missing from the Limited Edition, such as the ability to run older 16-bit code, the Limited Edition product is a "full-featured server operating system," Kolde said.

Microsoft has been working on Itanium products since 1996 and initially booted its operating system on the first Itanium prototypes in August 1999. It released a beta version of its SQL Server database program in February 2002, Kolde said. Windows .Net server, the sweeping overhaul to Windows 2000, is scheduled to debut on Itanium and other Intel processors in the second half of 2002.

But some see the Windows version as lagging Linux. "There's been a lot of good development put into the Limited Edition, but it's very much what I would characterize as paint that's yet to dry," said analyst Day. "I think Linux is a little further along."

AMD, Intel's closest rival, is taking a different course in tackling 64-bit computing with its Hammer line. Through a partnership with German Linux seller SuSE and others, AMD sees Linux as a tool to help its chip catch on.

Linux will also appear on 64-bit desktops with AMD's upcoming Hammer chips next year, said Ed Ellett, vice president of marketing at AMD.

"You will see Linux-based desktop applications in the 2003 time frame" that take advantage of Hammer's 64-bit capabilities, Ellett said. Most likely, these will be marketed as workstations, where 64-bit applications and Linux are already popular. Within one-and-a-half to three years, though, 64-bit applications could become commonplace on desktops because of the decreasing price of memory, AMD asserts.

A major advantage of 64-bit chips is their ability to address large amounts of memory.

But for all the challenges Intel faces with Itanium, it has a major leg up over AMD because millions of Intel servers already ship. They're low-end systems for the most part, but AMD is only getting started.

HP certainly has its strategy mapped out. Itanium systems may not be popular today, Loeb said, but "Linux and Advanced Server availability is going to help cross the chasm for the Itanium processor family."

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.

 

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