What You Need to Know About the Future of Itanium-based Windows Products

Once envisioned as the 64-bit successor to the 32-bit x86 platform that most PCs use today, Intel's Itanium processor has fallen on hard times. In 2004, Microsoft dropped its Itanium-compatible version of Windows XP; HP, which spent billions of dollars co-developing the chipset with Intel, bought its way out of its Itanium development interests and ceased manufacturing the chip; and the AMD x64 platform, which melds 64-bit memory capabilities with x86 compatibility, came on strong. Microsoft decided to support the x64 platform with a sweeping suite of client and server products that exceeds anything it had ever planned for Itanium. Going forward, Microsoft will offer only a limited subset of Windows Server products on Itanium platforms. Here's what you need to know about the future of Itanium-based Windows products.

Intel Pledges Support ...
Despite all the bad news, Intel has pledged to support the Itanium platform. However, I believe that the Itanium will ultimately be considered a largely unsuccessful industry footnote, similar to the Digital Alpha processor, which was eventually killed off after Compaq purchased Digital Equipment. To bolster support for the Itanium, Intel last year announced that it will create a common motherboard architecture for its Itanium and Xeon product families. The new 64-bit motherboard is due by 2007. Customers can choose less-expensive 32-bit Xeon chips when they purchase a system, then replace the Xeon chips with Itanium processors for a performance and scalability boost.

According to Intel, this plan makes sense because Itanium processors, under the current roadmap, will offer more performance punch per chip than Xeon processors by 2007. However, the 2-year development time of the motherboard architecture could seal Itanium's fate. Today, more and more customers are choosing Xeon over Itanium because of price, performance, and compatibility (Xeon is x86-compatible). Because newer Xeon chips support Intel's rendition of the x64 platform, called Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T), any perceived limitations when compared with Itanium are beginning to disappear, although it could take years for x64 to scale to the Itanium's levels.

While Microsoft Scales Back
But perhaps the most devastating news for Itanium came from Microsoft. Although the software giant threw its support behind the x64 platform in 2004, it was also starting to believe that the Itanium had run out of steam. Microsoft discontinued its Itanium-based XP 64-Bit Edition product. It also cancelled its planned Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition for Itanium. And it refused to port to Itanium many of its server-based products, such as the next version of Microsoft Exchange Server (code-named Exchange Server 12), although it was working on x64 versions of those products.

Microsoft will continue to support several high-end Windows Server versions that are tailored to the limited high-end markets that have adopted Itanium processors. Specifically, the company will continue to support Windows 2003 Enterprise Edition for Itanium and Windows 2003 Datacenter Edition for Itanium. Microsoft will steer small-to-mid-sized businesses (SMBs) to x86- and x64-based solutions. "Because Windows on x64 systems delivers excellent flexibility and choice while enabling a smooth migration from 32-bit to 64-bit applications, Microsoft believes Windows for Itanium-based systems is a stronger offering in the high-end server market," a Microsoft spokesperson said about the strategy shift.

Never widely adopted, the Itanium is becoming a dead-end product that meets high-end performance needs today but could potentially strand customers in the future. I recommend that you avoid the Itanium and Itanium-based products unless absolutely necessary. A new generation of x64-based hardware is starting to scale to levels once achieved only by the Itanium, especially on the desktop, and it's just a matter of time before the x64 platform meets or exceeds the Itanium's performance on the server as well, although that could take several years. The computing world is indeed moving to 64-bit platforms, but x64, not Itanium, will be the volume platform of the future.

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