Microsoft skips Itanium with new Windows

Microsoft will come out with a special version of Windows next year for clusters, but it won't run on Intel's most powerful server chip, at least for now.
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
Microsoft will come out with a special version of Windows next year for clusters, but it won't run on Intel's most powerful server chip, at least for now.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant said this week that Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition will not run on servers built around the Itanium 2 chip from Intel. Instead, the software--a version of the company's flagship operating system for clusters containing up to 128 processors--will run on 32-bit/64-bit server chips from Advanced Micro Devices and Intel.

The decision not to support Itanium 2 is the latest slap in the face for the chip family that 10 years ago threatened to take over the world. Last month, Hewlett-Packard terminated its line of Itanium 2 workstations.

Itanium 2 chips provide fairly substantial performance gains, and the chip is building momentum among heavy-duty computer users. In the most recent list of the top 500 supercomputers, the number of Itanium-based systems grew from 61 to 87.

Unfortunately for Intel, however, Itanium 2 systems require their own special software. As a result, mass corporate adoption has been slow. Both Itanium server makers and developers have been reluctant to put massive amounts of energy into porting their products to the chip.

A Microsoft spokeswoman did not pinpoint the reason behind the decision but said it likely revolved around demand for the product. She also added that the version of the operating system coming next year is only the first version and that Microsoft is strongly considering supporting Itanium 2 in the next version of the operating system.

Most of the Itanium supercomputing clusters on the Top 500 list contain hundreds of processors and typically run Linux. Many are also located at research institutions, which often receive free or subsidized technical help from corporate sponsors.

Database clusters typically contain 128 or fewer processors, said Brooks Gray, an analyst at Technology Business Research. "Itanium today is not necessarily the ideal platform for the highly scalable cluster servers. It may be more appropriate for the traditional big-iron implementations."

Although Microsoft's move doesn't help Itanium, it may not hurt that much, either, because of the prevalence of Linux in clustering, countered Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.

"Microsoft is focusing where they will see the most volume, but it remains to be seen whether the new edition will help Microsoft at all," he said.

The decision not to support Itanium 2 with the new operating system emerged this week, when Microsoft released a software developer kit for the operating system that didn't include Itanium 2 support. A beta version of Windows Server 2003 Compute Cluster Edition is due to come out in the first half of next year, and a final version in the second half.

An Intel spokeswoman pointed out that Microsoft remains committed to Itanium on other products. Microsoft currently sells a version of Windows for Itanium and has ported its SQL Server database to it.

Earlier this year, Intel admitted that Itanium 2 sales aren't meeting its internal goals.

Microsoft's move will also likely prompt many analysts to speculate as to whether Microsoft will eventually pull its support for Itanium 2 in general in the future. The company has pulled it support for different server chips in the past, due to slack demand. Years ago, Microsoft produced, or committed to produce, a version of Windows for Digital Equipment's Alpha processor; the MIPS processor, originally developed by Silicon Graphics Inc.; and IBM's Power chips. All of these projects were ultimately scotched.

Gray speculated earlier this week that Intel itself would kill off the chip line in 2007 or retrofit it to better run the mass of software built for so-called x86 chips like Intel's Xeon or AMD's Opteron. "I believe Itanium, as we know it today, will be discontinued," he said.

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