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The Itanium project did not work out as hoped for Intel. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The Itanic is finally pulling into port.

Intel announced Thursday that it will ship the last version of its notorious Itanium server processor, which it once hoped would form the basis of its future chip designs but wound up becoming a very expensive lesson in hubris. The new processors, the Itanium 9700 family, will allow whoever is left running Itanium systems to plug the new chips into their servers and get a little bit of a performance boost, according to an Intel blog post.

Familiar mostly to enterprise tech reporters of a certain age, Itanium is based on a proprietary instruction set that Intel and Hewlett-Packard — which helped fund the project in the late 1990s — thought would be more powerful and responsive than the server processors used by Sun Microsystems, IBM, and other companies that owned the market for servers around that time.

But Itanium was plagued by product delays, cost overruns, skeptical IT buyers, and poor software support. Intel poured millions into marketing the chip, but the “Itanic” nickname stuck.

HP Integrity Itanium server
An HP Integrity server, based around Intel’s Itanium chip (courtesy Wikipedia)

The original hope was that Itanium would prove to be a more compelling path to 64-bit computing, but it forced IT organizations to rewrite their critical applications to run on the chip, and few were willing to do that. As companies with big expensive servers from companies like Sun realized they could actually get better bang for their buck by linking together boatloads of cheap x86 servers from the likes of Dell and HP, rival Advanced Micro Devices gave server buyers a much easier path to 64-bit computing using existing software written for this new “scale-out” design, and Intel was eventually forced to copy its rival’s approach.

The whole thing actually worked out pretty well for Intel: the scale-out approach quickly became dominant, and its x86 chips are now at the heart of nearly every major data center in the world, including the Big Three public cloud providers. Still, Intel invested huge sums of money in Itanium only to watch rival Advanced Micro Devices pave an easier path to 64-bit computing with its x86 Opteron processor, which Intel was eventually forced to copy.

The x86 instruction set is the cockroach of technology: the thing just won’t die. Of course, while Intel was fighting to make Itanium relevant, nearly all smartphones now run chips based on the ARM instruction set.

While ARM companies keep talking about challenging Intel in the server market, they’re made no traction. But if Microsoft follows through on some of the ARM server plans it discussed last month, Intel’s dream of moving the tech industry off the x86 instruction set might be accomplished by its longtime partner.

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