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October 2004

Itanium fails to drive 3000 migrations

Without customer clamor, HP narrows systems to enterprise duty

The HP World meeting room was filled to capacity-plus for this summer’s Itanium Special Interest Group. But the SIG’s SRO status also conveyed a telling snapshot of interest in HP’s enterprise processor platform. More than 80 percent of those 50 seats in Chicago were filled by HP engineers and managers, not customers.

Itanium interest could scarcely be higher among HP’s enterprise computing managers. The HP 3000 computer customer represents the opposite end of Itanium enthusiasm. Processors don’t matter much to the 2,700 customers we queried this summer about Itanium’s prospects to replace their PA-RISC HP 3000s. Few of those moving to Unix, however, appeared to have drawn the conclusion that HP’s Unix future is wedded to a chip which is struggling to reach commodity status. HP-UX runs on only two processors: Itanium, and HP’s PA-RISC chips of today’s HP 3000s and HP 9000s.

Now HP has begun to pass over Itanium, too. Last month the vendor announced it was dropping its line of workstations which use Itanium 2 chips. HP officials said that the workstations didn’t represent a significant market for Itanium; the vendor believes the chip’s future lies on enterprise-class systems, such as the Integrity servers HP is pushing as replacements for the HP 3000.

HP said in September that its workstation customers prefer systems built around Intel’s other chip family, a 64-bit extension to the X86 Xeon processors. In a ironic mirroring of HP’s commodity computing strategy, computer managers and developers have been relegating Itanium and its IA-64 architecture to niche status this year.

Offered as the Valhalla of HP 3000 futures just five years ago, IA-64 now appears to have little chance at the broad popularity HP promised during the 1990s. This spring Intel told analysts that Itanium “will be positioned as a high-end box designed to run data-intensive applications such as recognition, synthesis, and mining,” said analyst Joe Clabby, “as well as high-transaction rate applications.”

HP told its 3000 customers for years that IA-64, which HP and Intel developed into the Itanium chips, represented the future for the 3000’s growth. The vendor at first declined to include IA-64 as a 3000 growth path, and then changed its mind. One developer said that HP’s slow pace about revising MPE/iX for Itanium tipped him off that HP would be closing out its 3000 business. But nearly three years after HP rang down its curtain on the 3000’s future, Itanium is showing shorter legs, too.

Slim commitments

HP 3000 managers who were polled before HP withdrew its Itanium workstations couldn’t muster much ardor for Itanium. Few had installed Integrity servers, and none had replaced an HP 3000 with an Itanium-based unit.

Instead, the customer base is adopting Itanium’s predecessor, the PA-RISC processors which also drive the HP 3000 line. HP’s Unix systems can employ a more advanced generation of PA-RISC: PA-8800s instead of the PA-8700. HP tells 3000 customers that the vendor can convert their HP 3000s to HP 9000s, a strategy that will keep 3000 sites using PA-RISC, rather than Itanium systems.

HP once had a program in place to let some 3000 customers acquire Itanium-based Integrity servers at a discount to replace new HP 3000s. But this e3000 Investment Protection program found a very limited audience before HP ended the program early this year. Customers had to register their new HP 3000 with HP to get those discounts on future Integrity servers.

Our poll of customers turned up more sites which have replaced HP 9000 systems with Integrity servers than HP 3000 replacements. At Hughes Network Systems, where an HP 3000 continues to serve the satellite equipment maker’s manufacturing needs, Chuck Ciesinski said the Integrity server smoked its predecessor: an HP 9000 running PA-RISC.

Ciesinski, one of only a handful of customers who spoke at that SIG-Itanium meeting, said Hughes replaced its 4-way N-Class HP 9000 with a 2-processor Integrity rx5670 box for a data warehousing application. Performance improvement was everything Hughes hoped for, he said.

“The machine is screaming, and it’s the same application and same IO,” Ciesinski said. “It gets hammered every month and it’s kicking butt.” The application needs less than one third of the CPU capacity that it required from the PA-RISC HP 9000.

“The average workload for those four CPUs was about 4.5. Now it’s under 0.6 on both [Itanium] CPUs,” he said. “The system runs like a bat out of hell.”

But the promise of Integrity performance hasn’t moved HP 3000 sites — a group that is still formulating its migration targets — to pledge commitments to the Itanium family. Many sites don’t plan to take delivery of HP-UX servers for at least another year or more. What they will install remains to be seen. HP will have to prove Itanium to these 3000 migrators primarily on price.

“My decision will be based on requirements of the software,” said Dan Buckland, whose Hickory Farms shop uses the Ecometry multi-channel retail application. “I believe that Oracle 9i and 10g require 64-bit processors. This does not necessarily mean that I have to purchase Integrity. They do have 64-bit processors in PA-RISC. Price and performance will be the driving factors.”

Although PA-RISC has a much longer track record with HP 3000 sites that have been using it, PA-RISC isn’t keeping the door open for Itanium. HP’s lost some 64-bit Integrity business to Sun, too. Sun’s SPARC architecture will be moved out to Fujitsu for manufacture next year, but Sun’s SPARC-based Unix servers got the nod over Itanium at California’s Yosemite Community College District.

“The software we selected could run on either IBM, Sun, or HP’s Unix gear, so we went to bid and Sun won,” said Edward Berner of IT Operations. “This was back in early 2003. At the time we were considering PA-RISC based HP systems, feeling that Itanium was still a bit young.”

Developing notices

If the HP 3000 customer base has been non-plussed about Itanium alternatives, members of the 3000 developer community have given good notices on the chips. “I have been very impressed with HP’s newer Itanium 2 systems,” said one VP of development at a 3000 software vendor and support supplier. “If you have native Unix applications, these are the fastest and best HP-UX machines around.”

But such developers could also recognize the counterweight of limited market acceptance for Itanium. “Outside the HP-UX world, Itanium has more negative-mindshare than positive,” said one developer, adding that “the Windows world hates the idea of having to deal with an incompatible architecture — which probably dooms Itanium to never succeed as a Windows server platform. The AMD Opteron and Intel x86-64 announcements have just nailed the coffin closed there.”

Developers see better alternatives for hosting their Linux applications than an architecture that differs so much from the AMD and Intel Xeon families. Those who work with and recommend Unix systems from HP see Itanium’s advantages. But that doesn’t give these systems a leg up at ScreenJet Ltd., a supplier of 3000 migration tools and an interface suite.

“We don’t care what platform or operating system people choose,” said president Alan Yeo. “If ACUCOBOL runs there, we run there. And they run more places than anybody.” ScreenJet has been recompiled for Itanium without a hitch, Yeo added.

Sales future

HP’s devotion to Itanium has remained unwavering in the enterprise markets, despite the disappointing sales of its workstations. The vendor deflects Sun’s criticism of Itanium-HP-UX’s much smaller application base — it is just getting beyond 1,800 native-version applications and tools this year, after two years of release — by saying that Itanium has the right applications, not just a lot of them.

“We are not in a race to see who has the most Unix applications or even the most applications,” said HP’s Jim Barclay, Manager of Technical Alliances. “We are in a race to solve customers’ real problems.”

But more than 1,000 of those Itanium applications run under Windows — which gives Sun ammunition to challenge the future of HP-UX, since Itanium represents the only platform which HP is migrating its Unix customers toward. HP hopes for one third of its high-end server revenue to come from Itanium systems by year’s end, but says 2007 is the earliest that Itanium could have system cost parity with Intel’s X86 Xeon line.

Even Itanium’s advocates in the 3000 community recognize that limited sales of any HP system could signal a shift in a product’s future. HP recently estimated that one server out of four that it ships to enterprise customers uses Itanium. HP’s goals for the platform were limited to database servers this spring, after Intel announced it would develop another 64-bit chip from the Xeon X86 design.

Whether that captive HP enterprise business, in the 3000s, Unix servers, and the OpenVMS line, along with Linux opportunities — will be enough to sustain Itanium’s future remains to be seen. Its detractors like to dub the architecture “Itanic,” while customers who have invested in Itanium rave about its performance relative to PA-RISC’s earlier generations. This year marked the first one where HP could say Itanium outperforms PA-RISC. HP did admit at the HP World SIG meeting that applications which use PA-RISC, non-native-Itanium code will still run faster on PA-RISC’s latest generation.

Sales in HP’s commodity model depend on value for performance. The lessons of dwindling sales have been retained by the 3000 community. At a 3000 software company where Itanium is scheduled to step in for migrations of a Web server and database server, the founder said, “Invest little in proprietary solutions which can be cancelled because of disappointing sales.”

That vendor’s comments were offered about the HP 3000 — but differences are already appearing to developers looking close at Itanium’s architecture, variance that could make the chip struggle to catch on against surging 64-bit alternatives from both Intel and AMD. While HP’s Itanium string may play out longer than the 3000’s, the end of that rope could feel the same for those who choose to run HP-UX on the chip.


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