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Intel Grooms Itanium 2 For Unix Showdown

The processor gets performance boosts and new support from systems vendors

After bolstering the capabilities of its high-end Itanium and mainstream Xeon processors, Intel is stepping up its effort to lure companies off Unix-based computing. Helping out are Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and Unisys, all of which offer systems to ease the migration.

Last week's "complete refresh" of Intel's Itanium 2 line, and the accompanying road map, will accelerate the move away from Unix-based systems, predicts Abhi Talwalkar, VP and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platform Group. Companies moving to Itanium 2 platforms will "see great benefits with not only price and performance but also with the choices available in the market," he says.

Windows- and Linux-based servers are the obvious alternatives. The market for enterprise-resource-planning apps on Windows servers will grow at an annual rate of 13% between now and 2008, with the ERP-on-Linux market going up 44%, IDC estimates. Unix-on-ERP servers will grow only 3% during the same period. "There's a looming battle between the Windows and Linux camps [over] ERP systems," says IDC analyst Albert Pang. Microsoft projects its ERP-on-Windows business will grow 150% in the current fiscal year.

HP, SGI, and Unisys all have introduced server systems based on Intel's new Madison version of its Itanium 2, which boosts clock speed from 1.5 GHz to 1.6 GHz and on-chip memory from 6 Mbytes to 9 Mbytes. The new processors boost performance 50% over existing Itanium 2s, but the real kick will come at the end of next year when Intel introduces its dual-core Montecito versions of Itanium 2, which will provide up to a 200% performance gain, Talwalkar says.

Itanium Gathers Steam --  Chart"A lot of architectures are going to hit the wall, so to speak, but [Montecito's] multicore solution could be a deployable answer" to heat and power dissipation, says Jeff Greenwald, senior director of server product management and marketing at SGI, "giving me another 10 years before I have to look at another architecture."

Wetherhill Associates Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of automotive electronics, dropped Sun Microsystems for a Unisys system based on Itanium 2 when it upgraded its computing platform earlier this year, says Ralph Presciutti, director of IT. Wetherhill wanted to standardize its workstations and data center on a single platform, and though it would have been easier to stay with Sun, Presciutti decided to go with Unisys when he learned that overall system performance would jump by more than 300%.

But Sun, which this week takes the final wraps off its Solaris 10 operating system, and IBM, whose Power5 processor leads in the highest-performance computing segment, believe there is life beyond Wintel.

Sun says no customers have asked it to support Itanium-based systems. But it's moving aggressively to provide systems based on Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s x86-compatible Opteron processor, says John Loiacono, executive VP of Sun's software group.

Itanium suffered a setback last week when Microsoft disclosed that its Windows Server 2003 Cluster Edition, to be released in the second half of 2005, will run on systems based on 32/64-bit Opteron and Xeon processors, but not Itanium. Itanium will likely be supported in a later edition, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman.

Analysts are cautiously optimistic over Itanium's future. Says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata: "I don't see in the near to midterm a clear knockout winner between x86, Power, and Itanium in this space, but Itanium is clearly a contender."

-- with John Foley

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