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HP's 64-bit Milestone: Itanium Passes The Alpha

Hewlett-Packard's two major 64-bit processor families running the OpenVMS operating system -- the aging Alpha and the still-emerging Itanium -- have reached "the crossover point" in which the Itanium now surpasses the Alpha in most performance testing, according to a presentation given at this week's HP World.

Terry Shannon, a consultant and publisher of the Shannon Knows High Performance Computing newsletter, predicted that Itanium sales and usage will pick up now in the wake of successful portage of OpenVMS to the Itanium processor family (IPF.) Shannon, who has written a textbook on VMS, said in an interview Friday that HP is currently "putting the finishing touches on OpenVMS V8.2, the first commercial VMS/IPF release."

HP is gradually phasing out the Alpha family and moving current Alpha users gradually over to its Itanium family -- a procedure that to date has been relatively slow. Shannon said improvements to OpenVMS for the IPF will hasten the migration.

HP's OpenVMS engineering performance team is employing a multi-pronged approach to beefing up the operating system concentrating on CPU, memory, and I/O to improve performance. Noting that HP hasn't yet officially released any specific comparisons between Alpha and IPF, he said he has taken some tests from HP and carried out some himself to determine that the crossover is now underway. Shannon said while IPF now surpasses the Alpha in most measurements, the old family still prevails in a few instances, most notably in memory latency and in some server applications.

"The performance crossover point -- the point at which IPF will meet, and begin to exceed by a widening margin, the performance of Alpha -- is expected to occur in the EV7z/Madison9M timeframe," Shannon said referring to the final iteration of the Alpha family (EV7z) and a new Itanium configuration (Madison9M.)

Shannon believes the OpenVMS measurements carried out on the Alpha and Itanium families are valid for other operating systems utilized by the two 64-bit processor families. He noted that the VMS operating system operates on a sizable percentage of the more than 700,000 Alpha processors that have been shipped to date and he predicted OpenVMS will account for "a significant operating system minority" piece of the IPF.

"HP will continue to improve OpenVMS V8.2 and its associated compilers, and with the OpenVMS-to-IPF port a done deal, we can expect to see numerous additional IPF-related enhancements," Shannon said.

During HP World, HP as expected released its final Alpha processor, the 1.3GHz EV7z processor. HP said it will continue to market Alpha processors through 2006 and will support the family through 2011. Shannon believes the large Alpha community will find ways to keep the family in operation for years after that. The Alpha was originally developed several years ago by the Digital Equipment Corp. and DEC looked on the processor as the product that would propel the company for many future years. However, native mode software applications were in scarce supply for the Alpha. Digital ran into a series of problems and Compaq Computer acquired the company and the Alpha family. Later, Compaq was acquired by HP.

Sun Microsystems has undertaken a campaign called HPAway to lure AlphaServer Tru64 Unix customers to its AMD Opteron workstations and servers. Sun has boasted that 150 customers have migrated so far. Shannon, however, said the overwhelming majority of Alpha users are moving to HP Itanium computers. "You've got more than 700,000 Alphas out there and a quarter of million users, and Sun is bragging about 150 users?" asked Shannon rhetorically. "That's nothing."

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