Bye bye Itanium, says Microsoft

Microsoft announced this week that Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 R2 will be the last versions created for the Itanium IA64 platform.

I remember a similar situation 10 years ago when I worked at a large City law firm; we’d just finished a project to migrate our core time billing system from SQL Server 6.5 to SQL Server 7.0, on AlphaServer hardware and literally days afterwards Microsoft announced they were ending support for the Alpha CPU platform.  Initially we were shocked, worried and felt abandoned, how would we power our number crunching database servers in the future?!

What happened back then, as I suspect is the case for some now, was that our addiction to the AlphaServer platform meant we’d ignored the gains the i386 world had made in recent years and if anything we were missing out by focussing on Alpha CPUs.  It’s no surprise then that this week’s news from Microsoft coincided with Intel announcing their latest 7500 series Xeon CPUs which powered one of the highest TPC benchmark results ever.

If you look at the TPC benchmarks released recently (I admit they’re infamous for sometimes being artificial and irrelevant) you’ll have to look hard and deep to find an Itanium solution a) at all and b) giving impressive results.  Intel’s latest CPUs are now packed with 6 or 8 physical cores, have re-introduced HyperThreading and can in theory support 256 CPUs per motherboard.  Equally as important is their price-point, highlighted when TPC takes server cost into consideration.

What does this mean for the SQL Server community?

For people about to deploy SQL Server in the most demanding of environments there is no certainty now that X64 is the way to go – Microsoft have endorsed this twice, first by ending support for Itanium and secondly by creating the Datacenter edition of SQL Server which can scale massively.  While there are some differences in the capability of the X64 servers themselves when compared to their Itanium equivalents the X64 marketplace is mature and vendor base huge;  any issue likely to occur will have already been solved, although I wonder how many people ever used hardware virtualisation in a SQL Server platform?

For environments already running on Itanium hardware there is good news that Microsoft will still support you for a while yet, and with Windows/Itanium being End of Life’d your vendors will be working on high-end X64 platforms ready for your next hardware refresh.  The fact these will be based around ‘commodity’ server hardware I suspect will entice people to deploy massively sized database platforms who previously would never have been able to afford to, mainframes and Oracle in the data centre will now have even more competition from Redmond.

But most importantly

For all of us it brings platform consistency.  X64 is now the only option for new server based installs meaning I can run the same executables, patches and hotfixes on my VMware workstation virtual machines as I can on my mid-enterprise server as I can on my high-end enterprise infrastructure.  Other than device drivers there will be no differences, whereas previously what ran well on X64 needed to be compiled and tested again on IA64.  If nothing else we can hope to see release times from Microsoft drop!

To conclude

I suspect this announcement will affect very few, I’ve only ever seen SQL Server running on Itanium hardware twice, for those like me it will remind us just what power our chosen CPU platform now has ready to give us.  For those commited to the Itanium world we can only hope the X64 server vendors begin designing replacement servers for you, which we can also afford and begin to adopt.

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