Intel ships latest Itanium chip called Kittson, but grim future looms

HPE will ship high-end Itanium servers in the second half of the year, and the chip will be supported by HP-UX and OpenVMS

Intel's Itanium chip is hanging by a thread, and after more than three years, the company is now shipping the next and possibly final version of the processor, which is code-named Kittson.

The chip is now shipping to test customers, and volume shipments will commence later this year, a company spokesman said.

Itanium chips have been used in mainframes and mission-critical servers. Hewlett Packard Enterprise will ship servers with Kittson later this year.

Itanium has been dying a slow and painful death, and Kittson will likely be the end of the line. Support for the chip has been dwindling, and software development has stalled.

Intel may be happy to see Itanium sink as it looks to drop irrelevant products in its pursuit of profitable markets. Intel has been openly lobbying customers to switch from Itanium to x86-based Xeon chips, which commands a server chip market share of more than 90 percent.

Itanium is in maintenance mode, and "you won't see much more going forward," said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

Intel developed Itanium in conjunction HP, and the first chip was released in 2001. The goal of the superfast chip was to replace older mainframe architectures like SPARC and to compete with IBM's Power.

InteI considered Itanium the architecture of choice for future high-performance chips. But the Itanium chips flopped and couldn't outrun SPARC or Power. Itanium's biggest enemy was Intel's own Xeon chip, which became successful with mass adoption in fast-growing low-end and mid-range server markets. Intel then put more resources into developing Xeon.

Itanium has been in the news for the wrong reasons. The chip's slow death gained attention when Oracle decided to stop writing software for the architecture in 2011, after it determined the chip "was nearing the end of its life." Microsoft also pulled the plug on Itanium software development.

Intel hasn't provided an Itanium roadmap ahead of Kittson. The new chip succeeds the older Itanium 9500 series code-named Poulson, which started shipping in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The only big vendor still installing Itanium in servers is HPE, which puts the chip in mission-critical Integrity servers. HPE has reassured customers that it is committed to supporting Itanium until 2025, but the company is also successfully convincing customers to switch over to Xeon chips.

HPE will release servers based on the new Itanium chips later this year, a spokeswoman for the company said in an email.

"We are refreshing our HPE Integrity Servers with HP-UX to take advantage of Kittson in the second half of 2017," the spokeswoman said.

HPE has kept Itanium support active until 2025 mainly due to long-term customer commitments. Many Itanium customers are government agencies, which sign long-term deals with vendors to supply and support servers.

In addition to Unix-based HP-UX, the Integrity servers run on Linux and OpenVMS. OpenVMS will get Kittson support in the fourth quarter, according to a recently updated OS product roadmap on the website of VMS Software, which is leading the software development.

Many customers may skip Kittson and jump to x86, but that could be an expensive proposition, McGregor said. The process involves porting legacy code over to new systems based on x86, and that process could take years.

Some Itanium users -- especially financial organizations who rely on the rock-solid servers for transactions -- may not be willing to take the risk.

"Sooner or later these guys have to convert to something else," McGregor said.

HPE and Dell are offering services to port code over from mainframe systems to newer x86 servers, but the process is complicated and requires a lot of testing to ensure the code is stable.

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