Fun With Intel Itanium

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It might be surprising for somebody, but Itanium-based systems are still being used today. You cannot see them in a form of a standard office PC though. They are hidden in large datacenters, doing some serious stuff running on HP-UX or OpenVMS.

I have one HP Integrity BL860c i2 blade server (manufactured in 2010) in our lab and there was recently some time to play with it a bit. I played a lot with HP-UX before (even with PA-RISC machines) so the obvious next step was to install the last version of Windows Server for Itanium. It has a built-in x86 emulator written by guys from Intel and it is possible to transparently run standard 32bit x86 applications along with native ones. It is not very different from current ARM-based Windows devices.

Some simple emulated applications can achieve 50-70% of CPU performance. However, other applications (especially those with GUI) are super-slow. It takes ages to load a web page in emulated Firefox. The quad-core 1.33-GHz Itanium 9320 received only 0.38 pts in the Cinebench R11.5 multi-threaded test (32bit x86, 8 threads). That is similar to a single core of a five years old in-order Intel Atom processor.

It was expected to access Windows Server 2008 (R2) for Itanium no other way than using RDP. Therefore, there is literally no graphics acceleration implemented in the ATI driver (the chip is based on the ATI Radeon 7000 core).

The support for Itanium in Windows was discontinued in 2010.

HP-UX and Common Desktop Environment (CDE)

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The HP-UX installation was successfully finished with a large text over a half of the screen saying “FAILURE!” written in ASCII art. The whole process took about ten hours and after an automatic restart, the system booted up in the graphics environment.

The CDE GUI is not as intuitive as the one on SGI IRIX but I can live with it. I was more surprised that all color schemes (about 20) looked ugly as hell. The guys who were responsible for this were probably on LSD. Otherwise, I cannot understand the color combinations they created.

On the bright side – although the CPU runs only on 100MHz, the overall feeling of speed is better than on 200-MHz SGI O2. I have only a low-end graphics card capable of 1280×1024 in 256 colors (actually it can combine one 256-color palette for an active window and second 256-color palette for the rest), it is very fast and has no problems with refreshing windows while moving.

Btw the system cannot use audio in the CDE until the network is fully configured. It wouldn’t be a true UNIX without such jokes.

HP 9000/C100 Graphics Workstation (1995)

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My C100 is not as nice as the one on Wikipedia, but it’s fully working. The machine was used in a small GIS company as a server for two X terminals (probably HP 700X). It is equipped with 100-MHz PA-7200 CPU, 256 MB of RAM, 2-GB SCSI HDD, two additional 100-Mbit/s network NICs and a single-head version of the HP 8-bit frame-buffer card. The original owners used it with an external SCSI drive for user data and did regular backups using the internal tape drive. They didn’t delete anything from the internal system drive when they stopped using it (the drive has only about 10 megs of free space).

Owners were probably smokers so I had to clean the internals of the machine from the greasy dust. Fortunately, there was no visible corrosion on logic boards. Now it is ready for a fresh installation of the HP-UX operating system including the complete aC++ development environment.

Itanium Blade Server

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Yay! I accidentally found an Itanium-based blade server that had never been used. I already removed the original root password that nobody knew and started with HP-UX configuration over a virtual serial connection.

I’m surprised how uncomfortable the terminal is. Although I have a very recent version of the system, even backspace/delete doesn’t work the way the world is used to for decades. Looks like UNIX guys like it rough…

Interesting world of UNIX computers

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I’m always surprised how little I know about old UNIX computers. I started with Linux in late-90s but it was just a low-cost/low-end alternative. Silicon Graphics Inc. was the only company that came to my mind when somebody said: “UNIX graphics workstation”. Thanks to a nice article about BZFlag history (which began in 1992) I’ve realized that there were hi-end graphics workstations even from HP and they had impressive 3D capabilities. In addition to that, HP had four times bigger market share than Silicon Graphics Inc. (workstation market, 1991).

The PC market is more about stand-alone components. These UNIX workstations were about perfect integration of hardware and OS and that’s why even today it is very pleasant to work/play with them. I would be very happy to have modern Linux looking and behaving like old IRIX on SGI computers. After playing a lot with SGI Indigo2 (1995) and O2 (1998) I consider the system very intuitive, stable and easy to configure in comparison with modern Linux distros.