Why did the Intel Itanium microprocessors fail?

I really hate Quora making me join and follow 10 things I don’t care about just to answer this question. What a truly pathetic business model!

Intel Itanium image

You are probably too young to know the entire story. It’s one of bribes, misinformation, and corporate espionage on a scale that makes China look small time today. This is the story as I remember it after having lived through it.

The story starts with the Alpha processor and Digital Equipment Corporation. Microsoft had been bribing everyone they could find trying to kill off VMS because because their platform could not compete. This extended to outright buying of writers at PC Magazine, one of which wrote a “comparison” of graphics libraries to the graphics libraries provided by Microsoft. The following month that same writer released a book covering the either unreleased or just released graphics library from Microsoft. I will leave it to your imagination who won the “comparison.” You could also just wade through the massive number of pages of discovery information generated during the Janet Reno investigation.

Microsoft started a well funded marketing fraud campaign claiming “proprietary bad, open good.” They got the Gartner Group (known for selling whatever they are paid to sell no matter what crime is behind it) to declare Microsoft (the most proprietary operating system in the world at the time) an “Open System” and the fraud used to justify this was that it could run on both Intel and AMD processors. They did not extend the same courtesy to IBM’s MVS which could run on both IBM and AMDAHL hardware.

VMS on Alpha and VAX was everywhere. It had found its way into almost every significant machine room in America and many around the world. In a post-Internet world you cannot begin to understand just how big a selling point DECnet was. It could talk to most everything despite all of the proprietary networking protocols in use.

Microsoft wanted its completely insecure viciously bug riddled OS in that machine room.

The fraud and campaign contributions targeted those controlling military and intelligence spending. It involved dark whispers “that chip is only single sourced” Thus began the new round of criminal fraud aimed at taking out DEC and most importantly VMS. They totally glossed over the fact AMD was in Germany so x86 processors would be single sourced during war time. They also overlooked the fact a billion dollars is tip money to the DOD.

After much wrangling with elected officials Intel got what it really wanted. To be the second source fabrication company for Alpha processors. You see Intel and HP had spent a decade trying to develop a new 64-bit processor from scratch. Nobody really knows the exact dollar amount, but it is huge. Everyone in IT called Intel a one trick pony. They hit on dumb luck making the x86. After years of telling the world a 64-bit version could not be created AMD released one. (That’s why you see Linux distros listed as 64-bit AMD and not just 64-bit. Intel had to use the AMD instructions and play catch up.)

HP considered itself an engineering company and it had made some of the best test equipment every manufactured during the 1980s and early 1990s. Neither they nor Intel had any concept of how to design a new processor from scratch. Stories say Intel kept trying to slip in x86 stuff and HP wanted something which was actually good. (Research SEGMENT:OFFSET addressing for a hint there.)

Now, in another part of the fab plant, they were making Alpha, the best 64-bit processor on the market. Improvements to be made over the next 5 years had already been written and were churning through the development process at DEC. Everybody involved said it would be around 10 years before they would be scrounging for speed and processing improvements or need a new technical wave.

Very secretly lots of the Alpha internals started walking out the fab plant door and into the HP-Intel chip. Some say it was basically a new generation of Alpha that Intel and HP were about to unveil. Reality is they got caught red handed.

DEC was in a bit of financial trouble at the time. G. Q. Bob was an incredibly poor choice for restructuring. He had the cookie cutter MBA mentality of “restructuring.”

Sell off enough of the crown jewels until someone offers to buy what is left of the company.

You can follow the link if you want to read just thumbnails. Basically, many/most believed DEC had Intel so tightly by the short hairs that they would win the entire company in court. Yeah, it was blatant. Did G.Q. Bob do the right thing? No. He cut a deal. The HP/Intel chip could not return execution results in R0 (Register zero) and a host of other changes leaving behind an incompatible and neutered chip. He also sold chip manufacturing to Intel.

MBA view of restructuring, cut all of the $80K and under workers who generate revenue, keep all of management who generate nothing and get paid well north of $100K. Management will save itself at all costs.

Intel and Microsoft had another debtor they could squeeze, Compaq. After the 1997 “deal” moving chip fabrication to Intel, dirty deeds and back room deals got Compaq to buy DEC. The goal was to quickly shut down DEC and put Compaq servers using Intel chips and Microsoft operating systems in every machine room. That’s when Microsoft and Compaq got a hard lesson from the Intelligence community about shutting down a strategic supplier widely used in both intelligence and defense.

Early Itanium chips started being seen in 2001 with full production in 2002. HP tried to force HP-UX customers onto Itanium and they chose to leave HP for another *nix based platform rather than endure the processor. Stories were abundant about early models turning into crispy critters if you tried to run them at their rated clock speed, filling computer rooms with the scent of Itanium Cologne.

Neither Intel nor HP were willing to admit the chip was a total failure. In 2002 HP bought Compaq and almost immediately put a thumb in the eye of the defense industry. They announced they would cease design, sale, and manufacture of Alpha based DEC computers. All users had to use the Itanium based machines they were going to produce and OpenVMS engineering was going to port VMS to the Itanium. Huge outcry came from the VMS community, some of which was still on VAX hardware which also was not going to be maintained or supported anymore. Used Alpha based machines spiked in value. Reports surfaced on just how many years worth of chip improvements were left in the pipeline and on the drawing boards further stoking hatred.

VMS was basically the only OS using Itanium and that was because they had no choice. RHEL stopped supporting the chip in 2007. Debian 7 was the last Debian release to officially support Itanium. Microsoft continued its efforts to get VMS removed from every data center in the world, getting help from HP who ceased development and got rid of OpenVMS Engineering.

The Itanium was over a decade late to the 64-bit party. Big computers didn’t need yet another 64-bit processor. They really needed 128 or 256-bit processors to make the pain of a port worthwhile. Had the Itanium been allowed to be the next generation Alpha it would have been a great chip requiring no port. DEC had unqualified management and Microsoft continued to be Darth Vader incarnate.

In July of 2021, the Itanium will quietly be taken out to the woods and shot. HP and Intel will refused to publicly admit they failed spectacularly. A group of former OpenVMS Engineering team members formed VSI (VMS Software Inc.) and are porting OpenVMS to the 64-bit x86. VMS was famous for “Up-times measured in decades” but that pretty much ceased with Itanium. It cannot even be dreamed about with x86.


The Return to Program Hiring

If you live long enough, everything comes around again. Well, hopefully not leisure suits, but it appears some things from the 70s are making a comeback. In this case it is mass hiring of tech workers from college.

During the 60s and 70s there was a massive software development effort under way. There, quite literally were not enough programmers to go around. Large corporations needing order entry, inventory, accounting, warehouse management, payroll and any number of systems people just think “exist” were being written for the first time at most companies. Programmers at many companies belonged to a group called SHARE  which helped develop much of the early IBM mainframe software.

Please do not confuse SHARE with the Linux Open Source groups of today. While SHARE was sharing source with members the focus was on creating maintainable business class software for production environments. This is a completely different mentality from the “hurl it and burn it” mentality of most Linux distros. If you have used Linux distros for about a decade, you are all too familiar with the vast quantity of single release packages. These packages are rolled into one release then are simply never maintained – or – they get completely rewritten by someone else because nobody wants to maintain someone else’s code, especially the tweens and teens writing most of those packages.

Corporations were forced to manufacture the programmers they needed. Many developed internal training programs where they would hire 30-100 college age kids and run them through various programming courses teaching them how to develop software for this particular corporation. At the end of the training program those who did well would be given full time jobs within various units of the corporation. For most corporations these were not unpaid training courses, they were actual salaried positions which lead to hire paying positions within the company. In today’s world, most corporations are intent on replacing all of their U.S. workers with H1-B or other visa workers in a race to the bottom.

It is actually very telling if you can find out just how many visa workers a corporation has because as that number climbs the well being of the corporation seems to directly decline. It is also next to impossible to identify just how many visa workers are at a company without interviewing the token few U.S. citizens they still have employed. You see, most subcontract these visa workers through various services firms.

Before you paint the previous paragraph as a slam at visa workers and those who employ them, you should take a look at this recent article.

Companies which are Wall Street darlings today have massive program hiring practices. Facebook, Intuit and many others have brought back forms of this practice with gusto. Conversely companies like IBM and HP who have massively embraced off-shore workers are headed down the soil pipe and into the sewer.

The lesson is clear. You can either race to the bottom and an inevitable bankruptcy (ala the GM bailout of several years ago after they massively chased off-shore IT workers) or you can build what you need and rocket over the top.

Do not just lay this at the feet of the visa workers though. Management at companies pursuing this path to riches are simply incompetent. This seems like a “quick fix” to “cut costs” for a short term bonus, and it might well be. The trouble is this line of thinking sacrifices any future the company might have had. In truth, the race to embrace visa workers is a red flag for investors that upper management is routinely making horrible decisions. Those decisions might not yet show in the financials or the stock price, but, when they do it will be like trying to hide an ocean liner in a bath tub.

The Ever Shrinking Definition of Fully Equipped

As a traveling consultant I spend a lot of time in extended stay type hotels. Unless I’m traveling to a client site where I’ve worked previously I tend to spend the first month or more at these types of places. It is best to leave both yourself and the client an escape hatch. Sadly many of these types of places either don’t bother to read the IRS per-diem publications or believe the combined food and lodging amount is what they can charge. As a general rule one has to calculate $3K/month into their billing rate at a minimum. You need roughly 3 times that when working in California or most places along the east coast. An increasing number of corporate housing companies will not return either phone call or email when you are looking to spend less than $7K/month.

The sad turn of events here has been the trend I’m seeing in the lower cost extended stay places. I used to stay at Extended Stay Deluxe places exclusively. While they might not have been “the Ritz” they always included an actual stove. With the recent re-badging of all locations as simply Extended Stay America “fully equipped” has come to mean a microwave oven and two electric burners. There is no way to pick up a frozen pizza from Kroger and cook it.

Actually a good many of the “frozen meals” found in the freezer isle at your local supermarket may have microwave instructions, but they really only cook well in an oven. In particular the sirloin tips and noodles from Boston Market fall into this category. I don’t blame them. Microwave ovens are all over the map when it comes to power. The cheaper ones tend to be the lowest power. Even a cheap oven gets reasonably close to 425. The electric ovens many of these places used to have are quite good because their sensor can provide feedback which directly controls the current. With a microwave you set it to high and hope for the best. Of course that frozen pizza has to stay in the freezer.

We’ve been seeing vendors try to sell less as more for quite a while now. It is indicative of a downward spiral in ethics and business acumen. Car makers have been trying to trim the list of “standard features” for years. Some foreign car brands have been making hay with this in their commercials by pointing out the competition makes you purchase lots of expensive add on packages to get the same features they include by default. They did the math correctly.

It is cheaper to build one wiring harness for all cars of a given model than to build different harnesses for different options. I remember back in my 20s hearing guys talk about how easy it was to put a different stereo in their Honda because it already had all of the wiring for higher end features. I seem to remember someone I know buying a Toyota pickup truck with rear wheel drive to find out they could easily make a 4wd out of it by bolting in the transfer case and different drive shaft. The front axle was already there as well as the wiring for the shifter. When your production run is hundreds of thousands it is cheaper to buy lots of one part than smaller quantities of many parts, not to mention the reduced inventory and warranty hassles.

The ever shrinking definition of “fully equipped” has even invaded the IT world. We’ve all seen the migration of systems from robust platforms to “fully equipped” “business ready” systems which are either a joke or feeble. The only thing which seems to matter to the MBAs involved is the short term gain, not a lasting business model. If it runs on a $300 PC sold as an $8K+ blade, they want it.

Of course we have all seen the tragedy brought on by these decisions. Massive outages at blade farms and hosting sites. Absolute zero planning or testing of Business Recovery Plans. Few if any companies have backup data centers or hosting sites in not only different locations but on different linked power grid sets.

Quite possibly the worst consequence of this ever shrinking definition is the ever increasing volume of identity theft and communications spying. Opting for cheap instead of good has put not only the purchasers of low end products at risk but their customers and national security as well. Proprietary communications were pricey, but they were also a bitch to hack. People were shocked to learn the TJ Maxx identity theft was accomplished by sitting in a van in the parking lot snagging unsecured transactions between card readers and routers.

Of course, 2 million victims seems tiny compared with the Target breach. Some reports put it around 40 million customers. Even if you allow for some small percentage of those to be kids under 18 and foreign nationals with stateside credit, that is still a lot of registered voters.

In Europe they have been using smart credit cards for years. In America, because MBAs have this ever shrinking definition of “fully equipped”, we have the easiest to steal identities. Banks and credit card companies don’t have to invent anything, they simply have to implement what many of them are already using in other countries, but it won’t happen here until the government steps in.

The timing of the Target breach could not have been more perfect. The last holiday season before mid-term elections. For at least 20 million, if not north of 30 million, registered voters identity theft and credit card fraud is not something they simply hear about on the news, it is a reality. I’m willing to be the final analysis will turn up the thieves exploited one of many security holes on one of these “fully equipped” “ready for business” x86 based jokes. What remains to be seen is if any candidates will make this a plank in their platform or if another, even bigger breach, has to happen before laws and regulations change.

We won’t see significant change until the CEOs and boards of directors look at jail time when their products and services enable identity theft. As long as they can simply buy a couple months of credit monitoring services for victims and insurance to cover the losses due to theft nothing will change in the business world. The thought of serving 7-10 without hope of early parole because they bought a cheap operating system or didn’t upgrade credit card technology will suddenly making fixing both things “in the best interest of the company.”

Probably the saddest part of this entire story is HP. Many of you reading this won’t know it, but OpenVMS (formerly called VMS) is the only operating system publicly banned from “Black Hat” conferences. At least it is the only one I’ve ever heard of. “Black Hat” conferences are where both good and bad people bring computer systems then play a game quaintly called “Capture the Flag.” they are all given a file with some unique ID but a known name and told to put it on their systems. All of the other teams try to hack into each other’s systems to “Capture the Flag.”

I’ve never been to one and only read reports so I do not know if they are given all of their flags at once or given a new flag file each time another team turns in their specific flag file. I did read one story where a team needed another capture to advance so they turned in their own flag file and since there weren’t any rules against it they were allowed to advance. Odd that a conference like this has rules, but apparently they do.

What does this have to do with HP? They currently own OpenVMS and have announced end of development to occur in 2015 with end of support in 2025. They own the one operating system that every intelligence community and every “sensitive” business unit wants and they are shutting it down to sell more blades and ink jet cartridges. Thanks to all of the leaker reports and the identity theft the world is their oyster and they are casting it back into the sea.

You may be neither technical nor business savvy, but every one of you reading this older than 16 has heard the stories about $12 wooden pencils, $800 toilet seats and multi-billion dollar planes. You’ve heard the news reports about the George Bush era wars costing the economy roughly a trillion dollars per year. From that it should be a very short put to conclude the defense world has deep pockets. If they both want it and can show need they can pay for it.

Next we look at all of the NSA eves dropping and reported Chinese hacking attacks. Even if one tosses out half of the reports as false or inflated, the rest are more than enough to realize this isn’t smoke, it’s an actual fire. What corporation or intelligence organization wouldn’t want the one operating system hackers gave up on? They may need some additional security for around the world communications but they can rest assured nobody is getting into their data center content unless they physically enter the center. The long distance hacking will be stopped cold. How do we know this? The black hats tossed it out because it wouldn’t give up the flag.

Even a management team which was repeatedly dropped on its collective head as infants should be able to figure out the hard part about selling something that secure in this environment is filling all of the orders. Even the sorriest putz with ears should be able to close the sale, assuming they don’t get confused when multiple buyers talk at once.

If You Ran OpenVMS You Wouldn’t Have to Be Outraged

I almost couldn’t write this post.  My sides hurt from laughing so hard.  This story about Google being outraged by the NSA hacking is absolutely hilarious!  Seriously???  You run a business on a “free” OS on a joke-of-the-industry CPU and you are outraged you got hacked?  I got news for you, the source is available to everyone.  Much of the code which goes in gets written by people who are unemployed and may not even have a degree in IT or software development.  It is more than fine for a desktop, but if you think it is something to base a business on you should be polite enough to share what you’re smoking.

There is exactly one OS to use for a business.

July 2001—OpenVMS deemed unhackable
OpenVMS was declared “unhackable” at DEFCON 9 after an OpenVMS Web server was set up at this self-proclaimed underground convention for “hackers” and enthusiasts. Allegedly, the OpenVMS operators were “told never to return” because trying to hack the OpenVMS operating system was too frustrating.


Death of the Wide Screen?

Like most software consultants and published authors, I have never liked this “wide screen” trend forced on us by monitor makers. Yes, perhaps movies benefit from a screen which is twice as wide as it is tall, but neither source code nor prose obtain any benefit at all. What good is it to display three pages across when you can only get half of each page height wise?

 Ever since computers were invented, ASCII report files were told to assume a system line printer capable of 66 lines per page and 132 column width. Band and drum printers usually also had a pricey eight line per inch mode which could get you 88 lines per page. Laser printers came on the market with dynamic Postscript capabilities which pushed maximum widths of 255 characters in landscape mode and up to 130 lines.

 Why do monitor makers ignore the fact most users need to view the output on their monitor?

It appears monitor makers have finally started to listen.






Could the death of wide screen finally be near?