Itanium sinks further as HP launches Odyssey programme

Intel's ill-fated Itanium - the chip known as the 'Itanic' to pundits the world over - received another nail in its coffin as long-time supporter and architecture co-creator Hewlett Packard announced the launch of a programme to move customers across to x86 hardware.

Intel's Itanium was to be the saviour of big business: the first 64-bit instruction set architecture it offered to the general public, the company's chips promised ready access to vast quantities of memory and high-performance processing capabilities the company's 32-bit x86 chips simply couldn't match.

Transitioning to Itanium was never easy, however: the new ISA meant that programs needed to be rewritten and recompiled, with no support included for legacy x86 applications or operating systems. As a result, Itanium struggled to gain traction outside high-profile HPC applications where writing custom software was a given, regardless of the architecture.

The Itanium's future looked bleak when both Intel and its bitter rival AMD launched chips based around a 64-bit version of the x86 instruction set, offering many of Itanium's advantages but offering full backwards compatibility with both 32-bit and 64-bit x86 applications.

Since then, the Itanium - dubbed the Itanic, in memory of the ship that couldn't sink - has limped on in a sort of half-life. Officially, Intel is still fully behind the project - but the success of the company's server-oriented x86-64 Xeon processors tells a different story, with even HPC and supercomputing customers choosing the chips over Itanium.

Back in June, Intel's director of Xeon platform marketing Dylan Larson admitted that his company's latest high-end Xeon chips were eating away at the last few supporters Itanium had left as "big back-end" customers chose the chip for their projects.

As a result, operating system manufacturers have been dropping Itanium one by one. Several leading Linux vendors have already announced the cessation of support, and enterprise software giant Oracle has been public in its derision for the platform - something which has landed it in legal bother with HP, over the latter's belief that Oracle is contractually bound to continue developing for the Itanium platform.

HP, as co-creator of the Itanium ISA, is officially - as with Intel - fully supportive of the project, but a move reported by the Wall Street Journal this week indicates that even within HP patience with the platform is wearing thin.

A programme dubbed 'Odyssey' - not, apparently, named for Homer's epic in which a routine journey turns into a ten-year trek - has been launched with a very specific intention in mind: to provide HP's customers with an easy way to transition from the Itanium architecture back to x86.

With Intel continuing to push its Xeon chips - and, soon, its fifty-core MIC architecture 'Knights Corner' accelerator boards - and HP starting to waver, could the Itanic be going down for the last time?