IBM cools on Linux support for Itanium

Move could indicate shift away from new chip

IBM has pulled back on its work tuning the Linux operating system for Intel's Itanium processor, in a move that possibly points to a larger shift away from the fledgling processor, according to an analyst.

IBM has transferred a handful of developers who had worked to make Linux perform well on Itanium to the task of tying the OS to its own Power processor, said Ron Favali, a spokesman for IBM. This transition away from Itanium came as a result of slow market adoption of the chip thus far, according to Favali, and could signal a growing feud between IBM and Intel.

"IBM doesn't have anyone dedicated to working with Linux on Itanium," Favali said. "Our view right now is that Itanium is like a science project. There's not a market for it."

IBM has been lukewarm in its support of Itanium to this point, saying it will release an Itanium 2-based server but taking its time to do so. A similar stance on Itanium has been taken by Dell Computer, which is also yet to ship an Itanium 2-based server. Itanium 2 chips have been available since July 2002.

Rival Hewlett-Packard has taken the opposite approach with its commitment to build Itanium servers in the coming years instead of its PA-RISC and Alpha-based systems. HP picked Itanium over its own chips in part because it believed the industry at large would adopt the processor. Such hopes, however, have not been borne out.

"IBM is getting less and less shy about making clear that its Power chip is the company's 64-bit play, especially for Linux," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata, in Nashua, N.H. "IBM would rather use their processor because they can do more with it, and get more money coming out of the system because they own more of it."

IBM has had a number of Itanium customer wins in tandem with SuSE Linux, but the company maintains that the brighter part of its future with Intel involves building 32-bit servers with the Xeon processor.

"We'll make Itanium systems available if a customer wants it, but our customers aren't really clamoring for Itanium," Favali said. "We do think Xeon has a lot of life left in it."

Dell also is focusing more of its attention on the Xeon processors and is doing a modicum of work to tune Linux for Itanium. One of the company's engineers touted himself as "Dell's only [Itanium] Linux engineer" in his online resume, though he changed this to say "lead [Itanium] engineer" after the company was contacted by IDG News Service. A company spokeswoman said Dell would not comment on the size of its development teams.

By contrast, HP and Intel said they are dedicating a large amount of resources to making sure Linux runs well on Itanium, as it will be one of the key operating systems for the chip. Linux's similarity to Unix can make it a manageable task to port software from a Power or Sun Microsystems UltraSPARC-based system to one based on Itanium 2, according to HP and Intel.

An Intel spokeswoman said the company "respectfully disagrees with IBM" as Itanium demand has exceeded its expectations in some vertical markets. The company also has a "massive amount of resources" dedicated to tuning software and operating systems for its various chips.

Likewise, HP said it has been working with the Linux community for years and is trying to help boost the operating system's ability to work on large, multiprocessor servers as a way to increase its Itanium server performance, according to Judy Chavis, worldwide Linux director at HP.

"We were ahead of IBM for years before they realized Linux was important, and their comments are just another facet of this," she said. "I think IBM now realizes they have some serious competition on their hands with Itanium."

Illuminata's Haff agreed that the Itanium chip has proved to be a formidable competitor to Power and Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC processors but added that he senses the industry cooling on Itanium overall.

"I think the industry is starting to shift a bit around Itanium," Haff said. "Two years ago people looked at Itanium and thought it would be the natural order of things to have Intel as the 64-bit chip supplier. The fact is that Itanium is still basically an HPCC [high-performance computing clusters] play, so IBM is looking to go their own route if they can get just as much market share with Power."

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