The Itanium is great, it's got a future, and it's selling pretty well -- considering. This is Intel's latest war-cry, as it bids to resurrect the fortunes of a chip that many IT industry observers have all but written off.

And maybe the Santa Clara chip vendor has a point. As we observed back in October 2005, Intel raised expectations to stratospheric levels when it started developing the chip in conjunction with HP, back in the mid-1990s. It would revolutionise the face of computing, we were told.

The reality has been less striking, and the processor appeared to struggle to gain market traction against entrenched opposition from Sun's SPARC and IBM's Power chips. That view was reinforced when Dell and IBM dropped support for the Itanium, leaving co-developer HP as the Itanium vendor with the biggest sales, by a long way.

Then the first dual-core Itanium 2, codenamed Montecito, was late, and Montvale, the Montecito update with a faster clock speed, larger caches, and a faster front-side bus won't arrive until the fourth quarter of 2007.

Itanium set for revival?

However, all is not lost we hear, as Intel's Itanium engineering director Rory McInerney told your reporter that Itanium is in fact now back on track. He also revealed slightly more of the Itanium roadmap, and explained that, in fact, Itanium is actually selling rather well.

If you keep in mind that, unlike the volume server market where Xeon rules, there are two other chips out there, the fact that the Itanium has come from zero market share to take a claimed one-third of the market is quite impressive, if Intel CEO Paul Otellini is to be believed.

"We looked at the unit ramp of Power, Sparc and Itanium set to time zero. We're right on their curves from first shipments, and transitions are necessarily slow when it comes to large servers," Otellini said. "In the mainframe space, you're displacing 10- to 20-yearold architectures; it's a marathon."

In other words, for a mainframe-style chip, given that the replacement rate is dead slow -- you don't rush an buy new mainframes every three years -- Itanium is following the growth pattern of Sparc and Power.

McInerney fills in the details, saying that, in Europe, researcher IDC's numbers show Itanium taking share from Sparc and Power -- and that it's garnered almost one-third of the market. He says that yearly system sales will be 80 per cent of Sun's Sparc and 75 per cent of IBM Power by the end of 2007. If you look at Gartner's figures, European sales of Itanium are 80 per cent of Sparc sales, says McInerney. That's still not quite one-third of the market, but it's none too shabby either.

Further, adds McInerney, software support is growing, with applications such as Oracle and SAP adding weight to the case for Itanium. For example, Oracle has reiterating its support for Itanium and plans to certify the next major releases of database and Oracle Fusion middleware products for the processor.

"Our investment of $10 billion in the Itanium Software Alliance is paying off because we're now finding software such as utilities that are being developed," says McInerney. "There are 12,500 Itanium applications, 4.5k run on HP/UX, 800 on OpenVMS, and rest are either Windows or Linux."

The roadmap

McInerney buttresses his case for the future of Itanium by pulling back the curtain, just a little on the chip's future roadmap.

If there's a theme, it's more cores and bigger caches, along with faster interconnects between cores. And Intel will put the memory controller on the die, AMD-style. What's more the notion of the common Xeon/Itanium platform lives: McInerney reiterated Intel's commitment to the idea.

He admitted that one of the consequences of AMD's successful competition with the Opteron chip was that Intel was forced to speed up Xeon development. This meant engineering resources got diverted away from Itanium, one of the casualties being the common platform. But that's all back on track, we're assured.

"There's also space for a product in between Xeon and Itanium - it's good for time to market", he says. It's all about a common chipset that allows hardware vendors to build a single system that can house either a Xeon or an Itanium.

What does this all mean? Tukwila, the next rev proper of Itanium, is due late in 2008 or early 2009. It'll be based on 65nm technology, will have four cores and more, and integrated memory controllers to keep the cores coherent. It'll also include Hyper-Threading,, higher-speed interconnects and memory error correction system that can contain and mark two DRAM errors. It will support the common platform, and will include further virtualisation support, namely Intel VT for Directed I/O. About 50 per cent of the die area will be cache memory, said McInerney, although he still wouldn't spill on how big it will be. Tukwila will deliver twice the performance of Montecito, he promised.

After Tukwila comes Poulson. Due in 2010/11 and socket-compatible with Tukwila, it'll skip 45nm technology and be among the first chips to be based on a 32nm process. It'll get four or more cores -- McInerney remained coy on how many, though the word "twelve" did escape his lips when he was discussing it in a general fashion. He then said: "We may not throw a linear progression of cores at the problem, that is, there might not be binary growth in the numbers of cores." Poulson will include multi-threading enhancements, and new instructions to take advantage of parallelism, especially in virtualisation. The cache will be "massive".

"The idea is for this core to be the base for next one or two generations of product, to get it right. We'll be on a beat rate for cores," he says. It might even be called Itanium 3, although McInerney didn't say so.

Then comes Kittson, with an "enhanced multi-core architecture". McInerney said he couldn't provide further details as the feature set hadn't yet been decided upon. "We're only just entering definition now," said McInerney. At a guess, you'll see this chip in 2013-2015.

So Itanium is gaining share in a slow-growing market, and the roadmap is back on track, re the key messages that Intel was keen to put over. The sub-text, not so hidden beneath the surface, was that the chip vendor won't be putting the Itanium out to grass anytime soon, and that software vendors, hardware OEMs and -- most importantly -- end users needn't fear for the future of Itanium-based systems.

So if you're in the market for a big computer that's designed to last for the next five to 20 years, that'll be manna for your ears.