September 22, 2009

Musings on 1st day of IDF - Whither Itanium?

OK, so I managed another early start on my day and caught Caltrain #217 to San Francisco. Destination: Moscone West, my day home away from home, and Intel's Developer Forum (IDF).

The trek to IDF is a late summer early autumn pilgrimage that the Intel faithful have been engaging in for years. While the venerable PC geek fest is still filled with technical sessions and other nuts and bolts revelations for the developer, the focus of IDF has continued its movement away from solely that of PC hardware to embrace a much broader audience including smaller and embedded devices, servers and big-stuff, as well as software.

The theme of Paul Otellini's keynote was the Spectrum of Computing on Intel Architecture (IA), with a particular emphasis on the Continuum, i.e. illustrating the scaling of IA from Atom through Core up to Xeon. No longer is the focus on personal computing, but rather on making all computing personal. Followed by a long list of examples from the tiniest of handheld devices, special application hardware, laptops, desktops, servers, etc. Intel went out of its way to show that IA can handle the workloads and form factors of just about every size imaginable.

While Mr. Otenilli made it clear that Intel believes that PC sales will be flat, not down, in 2009 and will show substantial growth in 2010, it is clear that the future will be driven by smaller hand held devices such as notebooks, and the even smaller. These devices are the domain of the Atom processor family, a growing reality that Intel reaffirmed by announcing the Intel Atom Developer Program. Atom based smaller devices were clearly on the mind of Intel and were plugged frequently as part of the Continuum and often shown side by side with the next generation laptops illustrating the seamlessness of the user experience across a variety of form factors.

Intel also spoke in detail about its strategy for enabling cross platform applications including support for Windows 7, moblin.org, Adobe Air, and MS Silverlight amongst others. Cross platform has always been a part of the Intel heritage, but when one stops to think about the potential impact in the embedded or purpose built hardware marketplace, there are many market forces at play that could help Intel drive its embedded Atom approach.

The universe of non-PC, non-laptop, non-mobile phone, non-server, and non-storage devices in enormous. In the realm of IT, it is the true elephant in the middle of the room. Yet for the most part, the embedded space remains the realm of proprietary chips and operating systems that by definition have not taken advantage of the cost efficiencies of standardized components and software. With the scale that Intel can bring with Atom, it is hard to imagine a marketplace that would not be touched by the efficiency of scale that Atom portends combined with the choice of operating system. While servers, desktops, and laptops remain interesting, the embedded market is where we see the latent potential for very big action including medical devices, transportation and shipping logistics, mobile devices, and yet with all puns intended, slots and gaming machines.

Speaking of servers, it was interesting to note the complete lack of any mention of Itanium in the morning's keynote, and only a passing mention in Sean Maloney's afternoon keynote. The number of enterprise focused (formerly Itanium only) features appearing in the Xeon roadmap continues to grow and the glaring omission from Intel's Continuum of processors and architecture discussion cannot be all that reassuring to the Itanium dependent. Although Sean did mention the now often repeated mantra that the value of Itanium server sales now exceeds that of SPARC based systems, in a market where Sun's sales have gone on hold pending resolution of its acquisition by Oracle, is this really all that surprising? If I were an Itanium loyalist, the muted tones of support and minute placement of my cherished platform would be raising the hair on my back. I wonder what the tone will be tomorrow night at the Itanium Solutions Alliance Awards party.

Of course any trip to Moscone West would not be complete without yet another loosely defined Cloud experience. In both of the first two keynotes, the Cloud discussion came up, and once again we see the effects of marketing buzzwords overtaking anything resembling consistent definition. Paul Otellini made the comment that we are no longer in a client-server age, but rather a many clients-many clouds age. In the afternoon keynote Sean Maloney talked of the continuum of the data center redefined including one environment called the Internet/Cloud. Argh!

Yes, I would completely agree that the client/server era is dead, absolutely. However, this industry wide fascination with ill defined Clouds is truly annoying. If the cloud is an entity that lives "outside" or "elsewhere", is it not the totality of everything that is not "inside" somewhere else? If so, how we can have a many clients to many clouds relationship? If the Cloud is a class of computing solution, like implied in the afternoon keynote, then what is the difference between Cloud and Internet? I may be picking on this topic a lot this year, but the lack of clarity is not good for anyone. If everything is a Cloud, then nothing is a Cloud.

Overall, it is encouraging to hear Intel continue to calibrate itself beyond the traditionally narrow focus of the semi-recent past (PC) to embrace a much broader view of the computing opportunity. While today’s keynotes were not earth shattering and revolutionary, they were incremental, future focused, and largely rational in nature. From a big picture perspective, the company has illustrated a long term vision that to our way of thinking makes a good deal of sense. Of course executing upon a vision can be more difficult, and the Santa Clara company is not without its executional shortcomings. Nevertheless, its vision is largely rational, which is more than what some companies can offer.

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