It’s been many years since Intel Itanium processors made a convincing story and faced a slow demise over the past decade. While the last of the Itanium 9700 “Kittson” processors shipped in 2021, just two years later now the Linux kernel is already looking at possibly seeing its IA-64 support removed over having no maintainers or apparent users.
I have a morbid curiosity when it comes to Itanium, and I’ve been on the lookout for an Itanium workstation for two decades now. This is the first time where one of these “Linux to deprecate some old unused architecture” posts might actually affect me at some point, and I’m outraged. Outraged, I tell you!
Back when Itanium was new, SGI tried to convince its customers that IRIX on MIPS was a dead-end and that Linux on Itanium was the future. SGI loaned my lab a few HP-built, SGI-labeled Itanium workstations for testing purposes. At least for our bioinformatics use cases, they were the first truly boring higher-end workstations I encountered, The OS options were SUSE SLES and RedHat Enterprise Linux, both with SGI management extensions for performance and support monitoring. (It was pretty neat to see Performance Co-Pilot running on Linux. There was a time when SGI was a true leader in providing tools to manage large, complex computing environments.) SGI also provided a nice range of pre-built open-source scientific codes and clustering frameworks.
Unfortunately for SGI and Itanium, most of the codes we needed to run were efficiently parallelized, so there was no real advantage for us to switch from large MIPS systems to Itanium systems, albeit ones that could address large memory spaces. This was compounded as the price-to-performance ratio of Linux clusters became more compelling. On the workstation side, my team had mastered IRIX and loved working with it. We would have paid a premium to maintain another generation of IRIX workstations, and we did, buying a bunch of Fuels and Tezros, even though we knew they were the end of the road.
The bottom line of our evaluation was that Itanium was the most expensive way to put an otherwise standard Linux workstation on someone’s desk. Maybe it would have been fun to try HP-UX on Itanium, but we didn’t.