Enterprise Unix Roundup: Playing Musical Processors

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Sep 9, 2005

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Longhorn goes Itanium, and Apple dumps PowerPC in favor Intel. What do these changes mean for Unix data centers? For enterprises with medium-volume servers looking for a load balancing solution, we recommend the simple yet sophisticated Balance.

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Amy Newman

While we normally don't think much about processors, except when we're watching the cool Intel commercials that feature the Blue Man Group, recent events both in and out of the Unix sphere have attracted our attention and started the mental wheels a'turnin'.

Depending on whom you ask, Microsoft's recent decision to plunk Longhorn on Itanium is either the greatest thing since sliced bread or just a bunch of bull. While several media outlets (presumably those loyal to the OS juggernaut) touted the decision as a big boost for the not-so-popular 64-bit chip from Intel, it was clear from really looking at the announcement that beer and nachos would be replacing champagne and caviar.

At first blush, the Windows community was all a-twitter that finally there would be a Windows server that could take on the likes of Unix and Linux on high-end platforms. After we realized they were serious, we wiped the tears from our eyes, and examined the announcement more closely.

First, it seems that the Longhorn-Itanium relationship isn't turning into to be the big love-fest first thought. Straight from the steer's mouth, we learned that the planned 2007 release of Windows Vista for Itanium will be optimized for just three roles: database workloads, line-of-business applications, and custom applications. In other words, a data center.

While Windows news is for the most part way outside the Roundup ranch, we thought this set of events was worth mentioning, if only for its effect on the processor landscape on which our favorite versions of Unix will run. Love it or hate it, Windows still makes up a sizable chunk of the server market, and if such a big player dismisses Itanium, we wonder what will be the overall fate of the beleaguered chip.

We are not advocating Itanium over other processors (the worthy Athelon 64 is certainly a strong contender), but we also don't think Microsoft's dismissal of Itanium will be enough to kill the chip off. Something else may kill Itanium someday, but it won't be Microsoft.

Love it or hate it, Windows still makes up a sizable chunk of the server market, and if such a big player dismisses Itanium, we wonder what will be the overall fate of the beleaguered chip.
That's because for the past few years, Intel has been heavily courting the Linux development community and building strong relationships there, very likely with this contingency in mind. It has hedged its bets even further and has built a solid Itanium footing in HP-UX, thanks to a strong partnership with HP.

Nature really hates a vacuum, so we've heard, so it will be interesting to see if any of the Unix or Linux vendors take advantage of Itanium in more horizontal spaces than just the data center.

Recent examples show that chips "abandoned" by major customers do not necessarily fade off into the sunset. When Apple decided to toss off the PowerPC chip in favor of Intel-based systems, we wondered along with everyone else if this was the end of the road for IBM's processor. Not so.

Besides the obvious continuation of AIX on PowerPC (PPC), several PPC-based Linux distros announced their decision to stay with the chip, not the Apple boxes. One such company, Terra Soft, is not only sticking with PPC but is also planning on delivering an advanced dual-PowerPC 970FX-based high-performance cluster node, expanding its high-end product line in the hopes of filling a gap that Apple seems to have left.

Much more than the more recent Itanium moves, the departure of Apple from the PPC platform leaves a big gap for other operating systems to come in and fill. IBM is already pushing PPC, with several sales and technical migration plans in place to get users from legacy systems to AIX/Linux on PPC. The new Chiphopper program, which is designed to get independent software vendors to migrate to Linux on any platform (x86, PPC, and mainframe) will certainly help clear a path to eventual PPC on Linux sales. Remember, IBM isn't in the AIX business or the Linux business — it's in the hardware business.

We think this round of musical processors is a game that is long overdue, given the overall market complacency with the Wintel platform. Enterprises will benefit from these processor moves, if only for having more platform choices (and thus more competition and lower prices) when they start building new solutions. How the game will end is anyone's guess at this point, but clearly the music is still playing.

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