64-Bit Computing Options on the Rise?

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2004-01-29

64-Bit Computing Options on the Rise?

Enterprises could see their options for 64-bit computing on the x86 architecture grow during the year.

In an interview with a financial analyst on Wednesday, Paul Otellini, president and chief operating officer at Intel Corp., said the chip-making giant probably will offer 64-bit extensions in its 32-bit processors—such as Xeon and Pentium—once operating systems and applications are tuned to such extensions.

That statement came a day after Hewlett-Packard Co. officials, responding to reports that they will soon offer Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s Opteron chip in some of its ProLiant servers, said in a statement that while they remain committed to Xeon and Intels 64-bit Itanium processor, they are keeping their options open.

That and other "64-bit chatter" convinced Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, in Saratoga, Calif., to issue an e-mail notice today saying that he expects one or more major announcements from chip makers or systems manufacturers within the next 45 days revolving around new 64-bit computing capabilities.

Though he said in his e-mail notice that he was unsure what exactly the announcements will be, Brookwood said he expects them to open up the options for 64-bit computing and lead the way to two-processor 64-bit systems from tier-one OEMs.

In an interview, Brookwood said the anticipated announcement next month by Sun Microsystems Inc. of low-end Opteron-based servers and the expectation of a some sort of 64-bit x86 demonstration by Intel at next months Intel Developer Forum also are feeding into the intensifying talk surrouding 64-bit computing. Sun announced an alliance with AMD in November in which the Santa Clara, Calif., systems maker will use Opterons in servers. IBM also has released an Opteron-based server, the e325.

Sixty-four-bit computers can run twice as many bits of information in a clock cycle than 32-bit systems, and accommodate greater amounts of memory, making them attractive to enterprises running data intensive programs such as databases and technical applications.

With Opteron, AMD, of Sunnyvale, Calif., has created a processor that can run both 32-bit and 64-bit applications. Intels Itanium chip can run 64-bit applications, but currently uses a 32-bit emulation layer to help it run those applications. However, the software enables Itanium systems to run 32-bit applications at 50 to 70 percent of the performance of 64-bit applications.


Scott McLaughlin, a spokesman for Intel, said Otellinis comments reflect what the company has been saying for several months, that it will consider building the 64-bit extensions into its 32-bit chips—similar to Opteron and AMDs Athlon64 desktop chips—when the software becomes available. Microsoft Corp. currently offers a version of its Windows platform for Itanium, but wont come out with a version for 64-bit extensions until the second half of the year. McLaughlin said Intel has not set a timetable when adding the extensions to its Xeon or Pentium chips.

Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., has long been rumored to be developing such extensions, but reportedly have not commented on it to protect Itanium sales.

But McLaughlin said that Intel would not see 64-bit-enabled 32-bit chips posing much of a risk to Itaniums, which are more targeted to high-end systems, which he said account for 12 percent of the market but almost half of the server revenues. Itanium competes more with RISC-based chips such as IBMs Power and Sun Microsystems Inc.s SPARC processors, he said.

Pentiums or Xeons with 64-bit extensions would compete more with AMDs Opteron or Athlon64 processors, and would not be able to offer some of the features that Itanium includes, such as error recovery on data bus, which allows a system to recover when data packets are lost, or machine check architecture, designed to ensure that systems are safe and running, McLaughlin said.

Brookwood said Intel executives need to be careful in how they position such chips because they still have an Itanium architecture that theyve sunk billions of dollars in developing and that is now finally gaining some traction in the industry.

In its statement, HP, of Palo Alto, Calif., acknowledged that there is "customer demand for support from a trusted vendor for x86 extensions technology in certain vertical segments where specific price/performance needs exist. HP is currently assessing our options in this area." However, they said their strategy is still based on the Itanium and x86 architectures.

The officials declined to elaborate.

HP helped Intel develop Itanium, and has a program to standardize its high-end servers on the chip. Jim Garden, an analyst with Technology Business Research Inc., in Hampton, N.H., said such a move by HP would be damaging to Itanium sales, particularly given the growing traction of Opteron in the industry.

"It would be a big, big move for HP and a big slap in the face for Intel," Garden said.

Other analysts thought the move could make sense. Gordon Haff, with Illuminata Inc., said that Opteron and Itanium play in different parts of the space—Opteron in the low-end, 32-bit arena, and Itanium in the higher-end, in systems such as HPs 64-way Superdome.

"This may be a type of thing where HP just saw customer demand and may really have been pushed by customer demand," said Haff, in Nashua, N.H.

Charles King, research director for the Sageza Group Inc., agreed.

"In a way its surprising, and it a way it isnt," said King, in Mountain View, Calif. "HP, in its partnership with Intel, has been the biggest booster of Itanium. … At the same time, HPs enterprise products group has been having problems over the past couple of years, and they need to find sales where they can find them.

"If HPs customers want an Opteron server, and HP doesnt have an Opteron server, theyll go somewhere else, and thats not a door [HP officials] want to open."

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