Itanium 'A Dead-End,' Says IBM Server Chief

Senior VP Rod Adkins claims businesses that rely on Intel's high-end chip need to find an alternative like, say, Big Blue's Power7.
IBM's top hardware executive said he believes Intel's Itanium architecture is "a dead end" for enterprises planning to upgrade their systems in preparation for cloud computing and big data handling.

"As we spend time with clients there is a view that there is no roadmap beyond what's currently available," said Rod Adkins, IBM's senior VP for Systems and Technology, in an interview. "I do believe there is a dead-end for Itanium."

Adkins remarks represent the first time IBM has publicly weighed in on a controversy that began in March, when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison announced without warning that his company would cease software development for the Itanium platform--a joint effort between Intel and Hewlett-Packard to develop a mission-critical, 64-bit server architecture that could rival RISC chips like IBM's Power line and Oracle's Sun Sparc processors.

HP uses Itanium mostly in its Superdome and Integrity servers. Both Intel and HP insist they are committed to the architecture. "The next generation of Itanium, Poulson, will be available in calendar 2012 with twice the performance of the current generation," an Intel spokesman said. Intel is also planning a successor to Poulson, currently dubbed Kittson, that will debut at an undisclosed date, according to the spokesman.

The current version of Itanium is known as Tukwilla.

Itanium represents a $4 billion business that Intel isn't likely to walk away from, the spokesman added. But Ellison said he killed Itanium development efforts because he flat out does not believe Intel's claim that the platform has a future, particularly in light of the fact that the chipmaker is touting new Xeon processors that could match or exceed Itanium's performance.

Oracle and IBM execs are rarely in agreement, but it appears Ellison and Adkins are on the same page when it comes to their shared rivals' plans.

"If you look at Intel, and what they have described about their roadmap, a lot of focus has shifted to Nehalem. So I do believe there is a dead-end for Itanium and that those customers are looking for other avenues," said Adkins. His comments were made Tuesday after IDC released numbers showed IBM had the fastest growing server business in the first quarter.

Nehalem represents the state of the art for Intel's x86 architecture. The latest version, Nehalem-C, or "Westmere", is the foundation for the new E7 Xeon family of chips introduced last month. The E7 line offers a 40% performance improvement over its predecessor, according to Intel, and is designed from the ground up to meet data center needs in key areas like energy efficiency and virtualization support.

At lauch, Intel VP Kirk Skaugen insisted that, while the new Xeon does rival Itanium in some ways, future versions of Itanium will surpass the E7. "Itanium is on a two-year beat rate," said Skaugen. "Since Itanium is not on a tick-tock schedule, Xeon and Itanium will leap-frog each other."

While they may be in lock-step when it comes to dismissing Itanium, Adkins and Ellison aren't likely to play golf any time soon. Adkins said Oracle is a latecomer to the integrated systems business, and that its $7.4 billion purchase of Sun last year doesn't mean it's suddenly a legitimate player.

"The approach to integration and optimization is not an overnight thing, where you can say I just acquired an asset and I put these things together and now I have an optimized system. That's called assembly and packaging," said Adkins.