Dell is pulling out of the Itanium business, closing the door on a product line that was only ever a marginal part of Dell's server product line. Intel's Erica Fields confirmed the hardware vendor's decision yesterday, saying: "We've got a host of [server vendors] that sell Itanium. Dell was one of them, but frankly, their impact on sales has been negligible".

Dell did not return multiple calls seeking comment, although this morning, the Itanium-based PowerEdge 7250 remained on its website, presumably with the aim of emptying the stock room. However, only last February, Dell's Jeff Clarke, responsible for marketing Dell's enterprise products, said: "We do have an Itanium-based system because customers have asked for one."

Dell's server business, unlike those of HP, IBM, and Sun, grew along with the introduction of Intel's Xeon processor in the mid-1990s. Xeon changed the server market, coming in as a much cheaper alternative to RISC processors that could run Windows and Linux. Dell's initial forays into the server market consisted of relatively inexpensive x86 servers, a type that today makes up about 90 per cent of all servers shipped worldwide.

After AMD demonstrated that 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set offered a smoother transition to 64-bit computing, Intel released a version of Xeon with similar technology, and Dell now offers 64-bit Xeon processors across its product line.

After Intel dropped its plans to make Itanium its primary server processor, it also stopped developing chipsets for the processor, leaving that to partners such as HP, Fujitsu and others, said Gordon Haff, principal analyst with Illuminata. Dell does not invest nearly as much money in research and development as do those companies, and it really wasn't in a position to develop a chipset for Montecito, the dual-core version of Itanium that is scheduled to launch this year, he said.

"It's not like Dell had been making investments in Itanium and suddenly decided it wasn't going to do that and pull back its support. It had a relatively older product it wasn't promoting at all, and it really doesn't have a near-term path where it could move forward if it wanted to," Haff said.

Whence came the Itanium?
Itanium is a processor for high-end servers in data centres and high-performance computing shops.

When the CPU was first mooted in the early 1990s, Intel had hoped to make Itanium the processor of choice for 64-bit computers. However, it uses a different instruction set than the 32-bit x86 Xeon processor, and software developers initially baulked at having to port all their applications to an unfamiliar instruction set.

The chip maker has since backed right off its original statements about Itanium and is now promoting the chip as a high-performance replacement for RISC (reduced instruction set computing) processors in Unix servers from companies such as Sun and IBM. HP is a co-designer of the processor and has embraced Itanium as the processor of choice for its high-end servers, and companies such as Fujitsu and NEC also sell servers with the processor.