Itanium fades from HP’s futures

Designed as a successor to the Intel x86 chip family, Itanium has breathed its last gulp of ordering air at Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The final processor orders ticked across Intel’s sales sheet this month. Intel plans to stop shipping the chips altogether by mid-2021. HPE spent $690 million on the final order of development.

Itanium holds the last HP Enterprise link to OpenVMS, plus another OS soon to be legacy, HP-UX. Unlike HP-UX, though, OpenVMS will have two futures that don’t need to ride on these last Itanium orders. Emulation brings OpenVMS to the Xeon family of x86 chips. There’s also the VSI versions of OpenVMS, built for x86 and set to arrive on the market next fall in 2021.

The final Intel system chips revolve around the Kittson processors, a 2017 design. Kittson was not a new version of the IA-64 architecture, simply a higher-clocked version of a 2012 design. Hyper-threading was the magic addition to that 2012 design, named Poulson.

The hyper-threads were a performance advantage until they become a front door for security problems. Hyper-threading is vulnerable to security attacks first discovered in 2018. Some analysts, like the writers at Tom’s Hardware, believe the attacks contributed to Intel’s shutdown of Itanium.

Itanium was the ultimate HP chip design, first announced as the Tahoe project in 1993. HP’s Very Long Instruction Word (VLIW) concept, refined to become EPIC, powers its only 64-bit architecture. Intel joined the project in 1995, the program was renamed Merced, and a brief three-year window was set for chip release. But 1998 saw no Itanium rollout. By the time the processors first shipped in 2001, HP customers were not impressed at the speed advances over the PA-RISC systems of the day.

Digital/Compaq joined HP not long after, bringing OpenVMS and the Alpha designs to a family of business boxes already crowded with Unix and MPE/iX. Only HP-UX and OpenVMS made the jump to Itanium. SPARC designs set the Sun and Solaris systems in a good place, so Itanium gained no fans there.

The greatest contributor to the Itanium demise might have been the advances for x86. AMD developed a 64-bit instruction set architecture (ISA), delivering the tech advances to the vast world of Windows apps and servers. AMD64 arrived in 2003, before Itanium even got its toehold in the HP marketplace. HP’s design became a niche chip, the end game arriving in support of legacy systems that HP sold.