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Microsoft Dropping Itanium Support

Microsoft plans to end the support it provides on three of its flagship software products for Intel's Itanium processor.

Itanium's product-support days will be numbered on Windows Server 2008 R2, SQL Server 2008 R2 and Visual Studio 2010, according to a Microsoft blog posted on Friday. The actual support ending dates will depend on Microsoft's lifecycle support policies for those software products.

The "mainstream support" phase on Windows Server 2008 R2 for Itanium will end on July 9, 2013. "Extended support" will end on July 10, 2018.

The dropping of support even extends to Intel's Itanium 9300 processor (code-named "Tukwila"), which was released in February.

Microsoft's blog explained that chipmakers have already released x86 64-bit processors that meet enterprise needs for "mission-critical workloads." A few days earlier, Intel had announced its new Xeon 7500 processors, which are also designed to handle such mission-critical workloads.

In a prepared statement, Microsoft heaped praise on the Xeon 7500 series.

"The combination of Microsoft's Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 R2 with the Intel Xeon processor 7500 series delivers performance and reliability that was previously only possible on high-priced and power hungry RISC servers and mainframes," said Bill Laing, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Windows Server and Cloud Division. "Now with the ability to scale up to 256 logical processors, customers can do very complex and demanding tasks with SQL Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2008 R2 that may not have been possible before."

The timing of the two announcements -- ending support for Itanium and the rollout of the Intel Xeon 7500 series -- likely were not coincidental, according to a blog by Nik Simpson, a senior analyst for the Burton Group's datacenter strategies. Simpson added that "the number of Windows licenses sold on Itanium is negligible compared to the x64 business," making it easy for Microsoft to drop Itanium support.

Of the enterprise-capable platforms out there, Itanium is only required for "HP-UX and OpenVMS," Simpson said. He noted that Red Hat also announced it had dropped support for Itanium late last year.

Martin Reynolds, vice president and research fellow at Gartner, characterized Microsoft's move to drop Itanium as not a big deal, and not unexpected.

"This isn't the first time Microsoft has threatened to stop putting Windows on Itanium," Reynolds said. "They originally started talking about this in 2003."

Furthermore, Itanium has tended to be out of the picture for Microsoft, being mostly associated with big-box RISC Unix systems that run large workloads, including legacy applications and database machines.

"The best way to think about Itanium is to think of it as a Unix chip," Reynolds said. "It's a processor that does its best when it's coupled up with a Unix operating system. So from that perspective, it shares a market space with the Sun SPARC chip and IBM's POWER system; also, to some extent, with IBM mainframe stuff."

He added that RISC processors -- such as IBM POWER, Sun Solaris and HP Itanium UX -- have been losing market share to cheaper x86 processors over the years. Moreover, unlike x86 processors, Itanium hasn't had much of a refresh over the years. Still, Itanium has its place.

"You can have 64, 120 Itanium processors in a system," Reynolds said. "You can't do that with x86, and that's one of things that distinguishes the big RISC systems that can run lots of processors and lots of cores without bumping into each other. [With] Windows, you really can't do that. If you've got a lot of work to do on Windows, you have to use virtualization."

Reynolds said that the main reason to use Windows on Itanium processors is to run Microsoft SQL Server. However, that's part of the support that Microsoft plans to drop.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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