Windows + Itanium: Mainframe killer?

By Tom Henderson, ITworld.com |  Hardware

For a long time, Microsoft has been trying to invent all of the pieces necessary to
cover the entire board in a continually changing chess game called the technology
market. Consider the fact that the company plays in both the PDA and game/Webtop
arenas, as well as maintaining traditional mainstream strengths in desktop and server
operating systems and applications.

One of the places Microsoft desperately wants to play is in the NOC and WOC (network
operations center and Web operations center) -- and it wants to put competitors such as
Sun and IBM into the services business. To check its competitors, Microsoft needs the
right silicon.

In the microprocessor game, there are has-beens, wanna-bes, coulda-beens, Great Silicon
Hopes, and success stories. Intel's 64-bit Itanium processor, due to go into production
any day now, could be Microsoft's hope at the high end.

A little history, or, sinking partnerships

Microsoft is having trouble at the top end of computing, where mainframes, hefty minis,
clusters, and multi-CPU machines dominate. It's a nice place if you can get there, and
it could fuel heavy sales for Microsoft if it weren't for a Rodney Dangerfield problem
that's dogged Microsoft since its LAN Manager days. A quick refresher course in how to
tie your wrists and ankles together is in order.

When NT 3.51, and then NT 4, were announced, several vendors came forth with processor
families to support them. Digital (then Compaq) would run 3.51/4.0 on the Alpha CPU,
Intel would proffer the Pentium, and back somewhere in the ozone were MIPS and the
often maligned PowerPC chip from IBM/Motorola.

Essentially, forget all of them except Intel. Yes, Alpha development survives, but
business plans for the rest of these processors running Windows NT/2000 are dead. There
won't be any.

They're not endemic, but failed partnerships do mark the history of Microsoft. And
they're that much more visible when they crash and burn like these CPU partnerships
did. Each CPU maker except Intel put their chips into massive (read "expensive")
workstation and server platforms that sold about as well as mud to a Floridian. While
quite capable, these platforms cost megabucks in an era when Cyrix and AMD were
attempting to cut the bottom out of the PC market. What were supposed to be eclectic,
cross-platform successes became quiet, sad failures.

That was a shame. These high-end (for the time) CPUs that were to fuel high-end NT
platforms were totally undercut by Intel and Intel-like processors. Very few vendors
wanted to port applications from Unix or other operating systems to a non-Intel-family
NT platform. Even Microsoft's own products weren't often or easily ported to the
CPU-partners' platforms.

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