Intel has scaled back plans for the next version of Itanium in a move that raises questions about the future of the 64-bit server chip, used primarily in Hewlett-Packard's high-end Integrity servers.
In a short notice posted quietly to its website on Jan. 31, Intel said the next version of Itanium, codenamed Kittson, will be produced on a 32 nanometer manufacturing process, like the current version of Itanium, instead of on a more advanced process, as it had previously planned.
Intel has also shelved a plan announced only a few months ago to make Kittson socket-compatible with its Xeon server chips, which would have reduced costs for both Intel and HP, the main seller of Itanium systems. Kittson will now plug into the same socket as the existing Itanium 9300 and 9500 chips, Intel said.
"The modular development model, which converges on a common Intel Xeon/Intel Itanium socket and motherboard, will be evaluated for future implementation opportunities," Intel said.
The revised plans paint a bleak picture for Itanium, according to some observers. "It could easily be that this is their way of cutting it back and having essentially an exit strategy," said industry analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight64.
"It may very well be that Itanium's time has come and gone," he said.
Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds said there may yet be a new manufacturing process, or "shrink," for Itanium, if demand improves sufficiently to make the investment worthwhile. But he doesn't expect any more major updates to the chip's microarchitecture. "I think after this we're talking about shrinks," he said.
Intel launched Itanium in 2001 with the hope that it would eventually unseat the RISC chips used in Unix servers, but sales have never come close to the volumes it expected. Early versions of Itanium underperformed, and Advanced Micro Devices outsmarted Intel by adding 64-bit extensions to its x86 server processors, a strategy Intel eventually mimicked.
Still, HP and Intel have long insisted they are committed to Itanium, a sentiment they reiterated this week. HP killed off its own PA-RISC chip early on in favor of Itanium, and has far more riding on the design than other server vendors. HP has acknowledged paying Intel millions of dollars to fund Itanium's continued development.
During that time, the writing for Itanium seemed to be on the wall. With shipments relatively low, vendors including Red Hat, Microsoft and Oracle stopped developing new software for the chip. Oracle has been forced to resume its development for Itanium, after HP filed a breach of contract lawsuit, but not before some customers backed off.
"When Oracle said no more software for Itanium, that spooked a lot of customers," Reynolds said.
Sign up for Computerworld eNewsletters.