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Has the Itanic Finally Hit Its Last Iceberg? It's Been Removed From the Linux Kernel After a Little Drama

iTanicStop me if you’ve heard this before…

We have this really old piece of technology.  We know we need to get off of it.  But we can’t because…

  • It’s critical to our business/operations and the vendor went out of business so we can’t upgrade.
  • The vendor didn’t go out of business, but this old version of the OS, database, or whatever is the latest version they support and there’s no other competing application vendor.
  • Switching to something else would be a huge cost.
  • It meets our needs and replacement products don’t do this One Weird Thing we can’t live without.
  • We only use it for one process or one customer and they might be going away and so we don’t want to put a lot of money into replacing it just to no longer need it.  Of course, we’ve been saying that for 10 years.

If you’ve ever worked in enterprise IT, these situations will be very familiar.

Usually the tech involved is something like Windows Server 2003 or RedHat Enterprise Linux 6 or maybe a really old version of Oracle or IBM DB/2.  Or even a mainframe.

But recently I was talking to a friend who works in a very large company and he informed me they were getting ready to move their Itanium servers from one datacenter to another.  I gasped.  Itanium?  In 2024?  C’mon…well, the story was a subset of the above reasons.

Itanium is still around.  But for how much longer?

The Itanic Story

Itanium (the ia64 architecture) was first released in 2001, the result of a collaboration between Intel and HP.  HP didn’t want to have to invest in continuing to maintain its PA-RISC architecture, so they partnered with Intel.  Intel wanted to get to 64-bit computing (32-bit x86 was then standard), compete more effectively with IBM’s big iron POWER chips, and bring the world of personal computers back under its well-patented wing without having to share the love with AMD.

Unfortunately for this plan, several things didn’t go well.

First, out of the gate, Itanium didn’t perform very well compared to the chips of the day.  It also required very complex compilers to take advantage of all of its features, some of which were technically interesting but didn’t win out in the end as other ideas came along.  And most critically, AMD swiftly responded with x86-64.

The x86-64 had the enormous advantage of being backwards compatible with 32-bit code, used the familiar toolchains developers loved, and was just as 64-bit as Itanium.

(Imagine if there was an IP version 7 that was backwards-compatible with IPv4 but also gave you 128-bit addressing.  Maybe it doesn’t have all the features of IPv6 but the fact that it’s backwards-compatible and solves the major pain point would make it a runaway success).

Intel begrudgingly licensed x86-64 (the Intel-AMD cross-patenting world is byzantine) and that chip went on to take over the world.  In 2001, industry pundits were predicting Intel would sell $35 billion a year worth of Itanium chips.  By 2007, these predictions had dipped below $5 billlion.

Ultimately, only four operating systems ever ran on Itanium: Microsoft Windows, Linux,  OpenVMS, and HP-UX.  The last two were HP’s, and they more than anyone (even Intel) had a vested interest in making Itanium successful.  After all, Intel could continue selling x86-64 chips if Itanium failed, but HP had shut down its PA-RISC line and bet its proprietary Unix farm on Itanic.  HP manufactured 80% of all Itanium systems ever made, and by 2015 were the only one still building with them.

Windows dropped support for Windows Server on Itanium after 2008 R2, which went out of support in 2020.  The last OpenVMS version to support Itanium was released in 2021.  HP-UX has been stuck at version 11.31 since 2007 and will go out of support by 2025 at the latest.

That left Linux…or did, until last fall.

Linux on Itanium

Debian dropped it in Debian 8.  RHEL phased it out with RHEL 5.  SUSE Linux gave it the boot (and not in a startup sense) with version 11.

In the kernel, Itanium support arrived with version 2.3.43.  And now it’s gone out with version 6.7

Not without some drama.  The desire to remove it was first brought forward by the people who write EFI support.  They pointed out that any changes to this code require someone to test it on Itanium, for which there are a couple volunteers.  However, the sense was that people were testing and validating code on Itanium, but then no one was actually ever using it.  In other words, the testing architecture was probably a greater community than actual end users.

The maintainer commented:

As a maintainer, I feel uncomfortable asking contributors to build test their changes for Itanium, and boot testing is infeasible for most, even if some people are volunteering access to infrastructure for this purpose. In general, hacking on kernels or bootloaders (which is where the EFI pieces live) is tricky using remote access.

The bottom line is that, while I know of at least 2 people (on cc) that test stuff on itanium, and package software for it, I don’t think there are any actual users remaining, and so it is doubtful whether it is justified to ask people to spend time and effort on this.

LWN.net picks up the story from there:

Shortly after ia64 support disappeared from the kernel, Frank Scheiner complained to the mailing list, saying that he and others had been working to resolve the problems with this architecture and had been rewarded by seeing it removed anyway. Linus Torvalds responded that he might be willing to see it come back — eventually.

Linus said:

So I’d be willing to come back to the “can we resurrect it” discussion, but not immediately – more along the lines of a “look, we’ve been maintaining it out of tree for a year, the other infrastructure is still alive, there is no impact on the rest of the kernel, can we please try again”?

Except that now the glibc maintainers have proposed removing ia64 support in the next release of glibc.  That’s a heck of a nail in the coffin of “other infrastructure”.

Looks like Itanium is finally down for the count.  In 2024, no one is likely to miss it.  Google Chrome is ready for it to die…it dutifully red-underlined every mention of “Itanium” in this article as a misspelled word.

What next, dropping support for Linux on the 486?


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