Intel shipped the final Itanium processor Thursday, bringing an end to a major silicon saga. Itanium was Intel’s dream to move enterprise computers from 32-bit x86 architecture to a new 64-bit architecture. Hewlett-Packard, NEC, Hitachi, Unisys, Bull, SGI and other vendors buried billions building and marketing Itanium systems. But the processor was too late and too much trouble for the market.
This is relevant today because new x86 alternatives are coming to market. Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others are making bets on exotic architectures such as Field Programmable Gate Arrays, Application Specific Integrated Circuits and Graphic Processing Units. Which begs the question, why would developers port code now?
The saga is close to my heart because Owen Media directed a $5 million annual marketing campaign for Itanium 2005-2008. Even then it seemed vendors continued building and marketing Itanium systems because so much had already been invested. Then AMD introduced a 64-bit version of Opteron that required no porting. Intel all but scuttled Itanium when it introduced a 64-bit version of Xeon.
Maybe things are different today. Cloud computing has concentrated compute among four or five major players who can afford to make bets on exotic architectures. For example, nearly every FPGA, ASIC and GPU design coming out now is for artificial intelligence. That said, it is extremely difficult to get the attention of developers, especially for risky and time consuming code ports. Itanium may be a cautionary tale to coders. Or it may be that the time has come for something totally new.