Is the recently announced Itanium Solutions Alliance (ISA) too late? It's looking increasingly like an ante-penultimate gasp for a technology that's behind the curve.

Just two weeks after Dell announced it would stop selling Itanium-based products, a number of hardware and software vendors have announced that they'll back Intel's bid -- the latest of several -- to form an industry group, the ISA, around the processor, with the aim of broadening its adoption. The ISA includes systems vendors such as HP and Unisys, as well as Intel and software vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP.

In practical terms, the group wants to expand use of Itanium by helping other vendors port their applications to the chip's EPIC architecture. Acknowledging that any processor's success is determined by application availability and depth, they'll offer cash incentives to developers, starting in a couple of months, the group will hold events to help developers build ports and test their software.

Itanium hasn't been a big seller for Intel. The original idea behind the 64-bit processor germinated as long ago as 1994, and HP quickly announced support as well as the commitment of major chunks of cash to help with that development.

No silicon appeared however until 2001. Since then, it's been a long slow haul. Itanium has had over four years to become adopted in volume by the market -- and with the exception of co-developer HP, the market has overwhelmingly said that it's happy with what's already out there from HP, Sun, and IBM, among others.

In total, approximately 75,000 servers with Itanium processors had been shipped worldwide as of the end of June, said IDC analyst Stephen Josselyn. HP has accounted for about 50,000 of those systems.

Intel's European marketing manager Alan Priestley admitted earlier this year that the company had yet to grab more than five per cent of the high end Unix market, the area where Itanium was expected to shine. However, he continued to maintain that: "New deployments, as the software stacks evolve, are when people will move to Itanium."

And Intel boss Pat Gelsinger agreed recently that the chip's launch had been plagued by delays and poor initial performance, and that software incompatibility with the x86 architecture was an issue. However, he said that, despite the problems which, had they been foreseen would have led to a different strategy, Intel was determined to make the Itanium a success.

Hence the ISA -- although even the ISA tacitly admits the problem. All it has to say on its Web site about the hardware platform is that "over 95 percent of leading server vendors have already provided Itanium-based servers". In other words, nearly every hardware vendor has provided an Itanium-based server at some point; it's not much of a claim.

However, there are buyers out there who want the Itanium's features, although one IT manager recently said that he was "a little concerned" about the competition Itanium is getting from Opteron and Xeon. And that's the clue to Itanium's weak spot.

Of course, Itanium itself is not really the problem. Few argue that it doesn't have the capacity to drive high-end systems, especially since July's launch of the Itanium 2, formerly known as Montecito. Intel reckons that it's demonstrated a 60 per cent performance increase over a previous generation Itanium using the Linpack benchmark.

Itanium 2 also includes power-saving, an increasingly important issue for data centres, especially as the cost of energy, currently ratcheting upwards, looks set to stay at today's high levels. The four-core version, codenamed "Tukwila", is due in 2007.

Despite all that, as Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff recently commented, it is tough to see what the new group could achieve that HP and Intel between them haven't, given the billions they've already spent trying to build an Itanium eco-system. "You don't see an x86 Solutions Alliance", he said. That's because there's no need for one -- competition and price pressures in a volume market are already doing that job.

So although Itanium may well remain steady in sales terms -- it's unlikely to grow significantly, despite Intel's pledges, which remain solid for now. The problem is that the competition has caught up and is much cheaper; a Xeon costs a fifth of an Itanium.

Intel may not though be able to resist the onward march of technology emerging from its own foundries as a result of the growing pressure that AMD is placing on it. Only this week, its biggest rival launched three new dual-core 64-bit processors.

As the 64-bit x86 processor becomes more capable, as it surely will, users may well start to question the relevance of Itanium, ISA or no ISA. Dell's already bought that T-shirt.