December 7, 2005 4:00 AM PST

Itanium: A cautionary tale

On June 8, 1994, Hewlett-Packard and Intel announced a bold collaboration to build a next-generation processor called Itanium, intended to remake the computing industry.

Eleven years and billions of dollars later, Itanium serves instead as a cautionary tale of how complex, long-term development plans can go drastically wrong in a fast-moving industry.

Despite years of marketing and product partnerships, Itanium remains a relative rarity among servers. In the third quarter of this year, 7,845 Itanium servers were sold, according to research by Gartner. That compares with 62,776 machines with Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc, 31,648 with IBM's Power, and 9,147 with HP's PA-RISC.

News.context

What's new:
The recent delay in the release date for the first dual-core Itanium underlines the shrinking ambitions and scope of the Intel processor, once vaunted as an industry-changing chip.

Bottom line:
The chip's story serves as a cautionary tale of how complex, long-term development plans can go drastically wrong in a fast-moving industry.

More stories on Itanium

But perhaps most significant, it compares with 1.7 million servers with x86 chips, based on an architecture Itanium was intended to replace.

"At the original launch, the claims from HP and Intel were essentially saying, 'If you're not with us, you're going to die. We're going to be the chip that runs everything,'" said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. "It so happens that promise has largely been achieved, but with x86."

The saga illustrates the risks of such sweeping strategies. While grand plans offer the promise of major rewards, long development cycles mean many more chances to stumble or be overtaken by unanticipated events--such as x86's longevity. Itanium isn't a unique example; Microsoft's ambitious "Longhorn" version of Windows has been delayed and pared back several times, meaning that some technology the company hoped to release in the 1990s won't show up until 2006 or later.

Itanium did vanquish two rival chip families: Compaq's Alpha and Silicon Graphics' MIPS. It also has respectable performance and is gradually replacing the PA-RISC family from HP, which sold 79 percent of all Itanium servers in the third quarter of 2005, according to Gartner figures.

But the processor's long history has more notably been marked by a series of missteps that undermined its heir-apparent status.

Itanium charts

The latest problem cropped up in late October, when Intel announced that the release of the first dual-core Itanium, code-named Montecito, would be delayed from 2005 until mid-2006. Earlier problems included other delays, poor initial performance and software incompatibility with the processors it was designed to replace.

Moreover, throughout Itanium's inglorious debut, Intel was dramatically improving x86 chips, and IBM, Sun and Advanced Micro Devices poured more resources into their rival chips.

The future looks unlikely to get better, said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of industry newsletter Microprocessor Report. "It's not promising. It has a space that will be there for a number of years, but it's been marginalized," Krewell said. "It's not hard to see that Itanium is not going to go much beyond the niche of replacing Alpha and PA-RISC."

Billions invested
Intel and HP are mum about how much money has been invested in the project. But some data points are clear. Albert Yu, general manager of Intel's microprocessor products group, was quoted in Electronic Engineering Times in 1994 as saying the joint development effort for Itanium would entail an investment of $400 million to $500 million over several years.

But the project grew well beyond that price tag as it slipped and backers had to pump funding into a massive effort to get third parties to revamp software for the new chip family. Several analysts estimate the cost as multiple billions of dollars, and the spending hasn't stopped: In December 2004, HP pledged to spend a further $3 billion to fund Itanium-related software, hardware and marketing work.

"The fact that they spent so much money to develop Itanium implies to me they expected an equally huge return on that investment," said Linley Group analyst Linley Gwennap, who followed Itanium closely for years for Microprocessor Report.

Intel and HP acknowledge they've had challenges with Itanium but staunchly defend the effort. "I think it's doing very well," said Lisa Graff, general manager of Intel's high-end server group. She points to gains in Itanium's scaled-back mission of replacing Power, UltraSparc and other reduced instruction set computing (RISC) chips and observes that half of the world's 100 biggest companies use Itanium systems.

"I think Itanium is still the architecture for the next 20 years," Graff said. "It's the newest architecture that has come out. It has the headroom. I think the RISC architectures will run out of steam."

CONTINUED: Double whammy from AMD's x86 changes…
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21 comments

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The Itanic is dead...Long live Itanic...
Intel needs to face the reality of their situation and stop this fiasco. Buyers of Intel products shoould realize that the premium that they are paying for the Intel brand is caused by run-away dead-end projects such as this. This so much reminds me of the RAMBUS push by Intel as they swore that no Pentium 4 chipset was ever going to be built for anything other than RAMBUS. But after the first chipset fiasco and much market loss to their own Pentium III they finally caved-in but not after losing money in the process.
Intel wants to dictate technology to the public rather than being driven by the publics wishes.

Their marketing and engineering folks need to get out more because they are on a fast track to losing the public's trust.

Fred Dunn
Posted by fred dunn (793 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Itanium...
could have been a contender. I think had Intel pushed really hard to make the Itanium platform the new platform they could have done it, but instead they kept the x86 and pushed it over Itanium. Then comes AMD with x86-64 and basically put more nails into the Itanium coffin.

I think Intel was it's own worst enemy when it comes to Itanium. I think we could all be buying Itanium processors now had Intel went for it. Of course we probably would have hated them for the change, but we would have all gotten use to it.
Posted by System Tyrant (1453 comments )
Link Flag
... more pixie dust, less unobtainium ...
the intel/hp dog and pony show is over; it was good while it lasted; but, a (1) trick x86 act none the less. these guys should hang-up their slide rules and call it quits, while they can still exist with a modicum of dignity. clearly, they can still talk the talk; unfortunately, they can't walk the walk. hang it up guys, you're turning our profession into a circus, which makes the rest of us real EE's look like a sorry bunch of over the hill clowns.
Posted by Lolo Gecko (131 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Itanium was not a failure...
... at least in the technical sense. It's a hot
power-hog maybe, but at the time it was designed
power efficiency wasn't a design priority.

The problem with Itanium is specifically that
the designers were aiming for a processor with a
revolutionary way of managing instructions that
would permit novel algorithms to perform with
brutal efficiency. Of course, what Intel
marketed the thing as a revolutionary step in
the evolution of the x86 microprocessor line.

The problem being, of course, it was the former
and not the latter. Itaniums are excellent
processors for a very specific subset of
algorithms. The CPU itself doesn't do all the
instruction reordering and such of its
predecessors, instead relying on the compiler to
do these things for you -- and the compiler
often requires the developer to code algorithms
a certain way to take advantage of the CPUs
abilities (much more so than is necessary on
other CPUs). If you ran existing software on it,
you got mediocre results, and the cost of the
CPU was (and really still is) just plain silly.

I had taken some training from Intel on Itanium
development for scientists. It was very
elightening, and I can really appreciate what a
beautiful piece of work Itanium (and Intel's
development tools) were. But at the same time, I
had to balk. I was not likely to recode the
applications I use day in and day out for
Itanium, and I would be beholden to others to do
the same for me. Even though I do develop some
software, I just wasn't interested in having to
go into that level of detail to get the
performance boost I expected. If I were, I'd
have been writing assembly code.

Itanium is flagging not because it's a bad CPU,
only because for the majority it's not the best
CPU or best CPU for the money given what people
need to run today, and because the barrier to
making software that could make it the best is
getting higher the more software people use.

The best case scenario for Itanium would be a
move to a JVM or CLR explicitly tuned for
Itanium and a broad shift to running VM-based
software. Intel probably recognized that but
weren't prepared to affect that shift on their
own.
Posted by Gleeplewinky (289 comments )
Reply Link Flag
gosh, that's really swell ...
:)
Posted by Lolo Gecko (131 comments )
Link Flag
UltraSparc T1 will nail Itanium's coffin
yeah, check it out man, les than 80 watts power consumption, 5 times Xeon performance, less foot print servers..wow..why would anyone consider Itanium ? If floating point ops are what you need, then there is always Opteron.

Man, Intel should scrap Itanium to save money
Posted by ramsci (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Nope
Nope, T1 has no impact on Itanic becuase it does not run Windows. Microsoft killed Itanic because they decided to go the way of history and choose the 64-bit instruction set that makes the most sense. There was absolutely no reason for Intel to come up with a new 64-bit instruction set other than to screw AMD. It bit them in the tail.
Posted by felgercarbnaysay (49 comments )
Link Flag
forgot
Oh,,, got it ,,Is Itanium a medal something like TITANIUM? iF SO THAT STUFF IS HARD, and very durable, allmost none destructible.. Thank you ..Garey
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Booooriiinnggggg
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz
Posted by (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Alll about trying to screw AMD
When I heard that Intel was going to come up with a whole new 64-bit instruction set for Itanium rather than just extend the old 32-bit set, I knew they were in trouble. I lived through the 16 to 32-bit change of the late 1980s and remember how Motorola, Nat Semi and Intel did the logical thing and just extended their instruction sets. Intel's big mistake was getting fixated on screwing AMD and the other Intel cloners. They forgot that changing instruction sets also screwed their sofware partners and, most importantly, their customers.

I disagree with a previous poster's belief that Sun's Niagara is the nail in Itanium's coffin. The nail was Microsoft when they said no to 64-bit windows using Itanium's ill concieved instruction set.
Posted by felgercarbnaysay (49 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Repeating myself.
I'm only going to disagree with you on the Intel trying to screw AMD thing. Intel has many ways of screwing AMD they didn't need to come up with the Itanium to do it.
Posted by System Tyrant (1453 comments )
Link Flag
Good chip, but over-priced
I work with both Intel Itanium 2 based machines, and AMD Opteron based machines. The Itaniums are about 10% faster than the Opterons. However, the Itaniums cost about 8 times as much as the Opterons.

If Intel priced their Itanium 2 chips competetively, their sales volume would surge.
Posted by qmuser (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Simply not true.
We work with massive Data Warehouses?
The Itanium really shunts data fast!
What applications are you comparing ??
Posted by Pieter_Infomet (2 comments )
Link Flag
DEC Alpha all over again
I read this story and couldn't help but replace Itanium with Alpha. It read the same way... lack of apps, re-compiles, 64 bit but no 32 bit compatability, etc. Intel/HP could have looked at the Alpha saga and learned a lesson.

DEC, then Compaq, continued the company line of "Alpha forever", just as Intel/HP are continuing the "Itanium forever" company line. But Itanium will suffer the same fate.

And folks like me will buy AMD Opteron and love the performance, ease of use, and happy users.
Posted by (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
At least Apha wa real...
Wrong...Alpha was a product! Done delivered and a 64bit processor WAY before it's time. The fact that Qmpaq was not able to make it work had to do with its own buy out by guess who... HP! Hell, Intel can't even do a 64 bit processor two decades later? Trust me, it has to do with a cultural impotence there more than anything else and unless Otellini has the balls to change that nothing else will change. That culture could not deliver a baby in nine years!
Posted by madhungarian (3 comments )
Link Flag
Why don't they just give and admit Defeat
While back in the early days it might have been a good thought, today AMD is the only way to go.
I am old VAX/VMS operator and migrated to the Alphas using OPEN VMS and TRU64. Even the older 400 or so MHZ processors can out do even the newer Servers today. They can run forever without rebooting. Most Windows servers need to be rebooted Daily or weekly even Server 2003.
Then the IBM AS/400's need to be Booted (IPL'd) often.
Yes The Alpha's were 64bit, But they were not meant for Workstation use. They were meant to crunch numbers, and the did that very well.
When Compaq bought DEC, Intel got the rights for the ALPHA, but they still couldn't get the ITANIUM to work. AMD actually hired the People who created the ALPHA chip. Its no wonder why they are overtaking INTEL.
Posted by kakphoto (18 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Author needs dark glasses and a white cane
Considering that Itanium (HP) is now kicking the collective rears of Sun and IBM, I wouldn't put the author in the same class as Nostradamus. The absolute highest Oracle performance known to man can only be had on IA64 servers. Add overall flexibility and management to the mix, and it's easy to understand why Sun and IBM are terrified of HP's current server lineup.
Posted by dcs0582 (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Most of these comments indicate exactly how unscientific most IT people really are.
The comments here reflect opinions, perceptions, markerting hype and blatant dis information.
They represent very little facts. I find it strange that so many offer opinions when in fact they have not even worked with, or properly benchmarked these machines/technologies they are criticizing (more like character assasination).

This is really not useful. I am not reading these articiles because I am interested in personal opinions or infights.

I hope to gain knowledge and insights from other people's experience.

In stead I am appalled by the biased and unscientific non-sensical opinions and stereo-types
of people who call themselves professionals.

This is simply scandalous!
Posted by Pieter_Infomet (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What a bummer. I was there at HP and boldly said in 1995 that Intel would never deliver Merced...they had no incentive. Intel works like the invisible hand of capitalism. They thrash about always doing what is best for them in the moment. Their culture guarantees that those things that are truly survival related are executed well. Making HP more successful was not in Intel's interest and wouldn't be rewarded.
I remember instantly thinking, "If I were at Intel I would screw HP and start moving up the food chain". Saying it out loud was a big mistake, but it was the truth. I also, remember that the plan was to have Intel do Merced and HP McKinnly. Merced was late and lame. McKinnly followed and met expectations, but after all the trauma, it was too little too late. HP gave their McKinnly team to Intel and that was the end for HP.
The arrogance at HP was so visible. They really thought that they were something. The rest of the world was supposed to bust there butts so that HP architects could day dream, boondoggle, preside in standards bodies like elder statesman or sages of the industry. Young and hungry companies don't do that and would eventually eat HP's lunch.
So sad to see such a great company get destroyed from the inside out.
Larry Elision taking cues from Steve Jobs has got it right. Control your destiny when ever you can. Be ruthless in keeping that control, then work hard to deliver insanely great products continually. Don't rest. When you do your dead.
Posted by BiffJones (3 comments )
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