Itanium lifespan proves legacy’s architecture has legs

In the theatre, a show that’s long-running is said to “have legs.” The term refers to the ropes running the curtain up and down, night after night, without wearing out. That same attribute might apply to legacy technology. Even when it’s not mainstream anymore, the curtains rise every day for more work.

Intel recently shipped the final set of its Itanium processors, the architecture that powers HP Enterprise Integrity servers. Despite arriving later than predicted, plus spending most of its lifespan competing with the flagship Intel chip Xeon, Itanium lasted close to 20 years. The final shipment arrived with a fun footnote. Three hundred of the processor boards were up on eBay during the same week. Final shipment translates to eBay sales. This is the ultimate in affordability.

Itanium arrived with grander plans than holding its place for 20 years. This was to be the ultimate Intel-HP collaboration, the replacement for x86 tech in 64 bits. The first whispers date from 1994. Seven years later the first systems got ship dates. At nearly every turn, the market’s choices and Intel itself generated roadblocks for Itanium growth.

But it was a proprietary stack, hardware plus software controlled by a single vendor. The same kind of legacy solution is still running in shops with Sun, Digital Alpha, and DEC VAX infrastructures. The magic of these designs is now emulated, in virtualization. Original vendor hardware needs are fading fast. A report on the website The Register made note of those last Itanium systems. HP promises support for Integrity servers through 2025. That’s support for legacy hardware. The software has an even longer life, as proven by what the new owners of OpenVMS are doing with Version 9 of the OS.

Emulating for legacy

The readers also like to tag stacks such as Itanium as abandonware. One reader asked, “What’s next — an IA64 emulator and dumped images of popular IA64 software builds?”

Architectures are already running as emulators for HP’s PA-RISC HP 3000s. Universal aspects of legacy choices include longevity and durability. Not longevity for vendor sales, necessarily. But legacy lives long in customer shops, supported by its software legs. Itanium leaned hard on its compilers to make speedy computing. That’s a vote for software as the essential engine of legacy computing.

Alas, the compilers did not arrive in force for Itanium. First it was Project Tahoe in the middle 1990s, then it was called Merced, which shipped late and was considered only a developer’s platform. However, HP offered Itanium to the HP 3000 customer whose systems were being halted by HP. VMS got its Itanium conversion. The lifecycle of Itanium takes longer steps. HP’s cost to trickle features and upgrades was steep. Within eight years, Intel lapped Itanium with Xeon features.

The Register dubbed Itanium “Itanic” within a few years of HP’s first shipments. Struggles in the market will push a tech journalist to say things like that. Legacy computing managers are creatures of habit, though. Their choices make computing succeed for companies that do not casually migrate to new platforms. What becomes true is that legacy choices stay in place because migration is expensive. Or as the Register’s Simon Sharwood says, “Even though Itanium development slowed, and new releases offered modest performance improvements, the platform lived on.”

Ringing down the curtain for the last performance might be decades away for legacy IT choices. It’s as if the creators of these stacks have mounted such a good show that regional theatres everywhere keep putting on performances. The run goes on, like the show must go on.

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