One cuckoo doesn't add up to a summer but it does indicate trends. And one key trend right now is the downwards sales slope of Intel's flagship processor, Itanium, in the workstation market. HP recently decided to ditch Itanium for its workstations, the remainder of which are RISC-based. Remember, HP was a partner with Intel in the development of the chip, starting way back in the mid-1990s. At that point, we were wondering what would happen to HP's processors and its OS.
Some ten years on, what's clear is that, though the chip remains in place as part of HP's Integrity server catalogue, just two years after their introduction, HP has decided to pull the plug on the workstations, citing poor sales.
Intel's comment was that the workstation market was never a core focus for the chip, so it didn't really matter. On the other hand, Intel's European marketing manager told Techworld that, following the launch of the Xeon with 64-bit extensions (EM64T), Itanium wasn't gaining significant traction even in the server market. He put its share at around a static five per cent.
Others in the RISC server market are doing much better, especially the leader HP, followed by IBM and Sun. And it's a fast-growing market, but one in which Itanium fell some $13.4 billion short of its IDC-predicted target last quarter. That's $13,400,000,000.
While Itanium's sales have started an upward course in the server market, it's from a very low base. And since you need to recompile your apps on moving to the high-end of either workstation or RISC server market, the question has to be why you'd bother doing so for Itanium unless there was a very good reason.
From a workstation perspective, given the user interaction issues involved, switching processors and quite possibly operating systems is not a smart move. Those people are high earners and, if you put them out of commission or even slow down their productivity for significant lengths of time, it's costing you for little payback.
On the server side, Itanium has the potential to do better but messing with a working system again demands significant return on the investment before you'd inconvenience users and soak up more of your IT staff's costly time. If 64-bitness is what you're looking for, even Intel tacitly admits that it has to some extent eaten its own children. With Xeon EM64T now providing a solid 64-bit platform combined with backwards compatibility, Xeon is a lot safer and easier: the chips are cheaper and the machines housing them more flexible.
So is it the end for Itanium? Not any time soon, in our opinion, as Intel doesn't give up easily and has deep pockets. It's also afraid of being surrounded by competitors and will always look for a gap in the hedge. Itanium is one of them, and the Santa Clara chip behemoth didn't get where it is by not being paranoid.