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AMD Details 64-bit 'Hammer' Architecture

At the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, Calif., Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) Monday disclosed details about its next-generation 64-bit microprocessor, code-named “Hammer.”

Hammer is expected to compete with Intel Corp.’s 64-bit microprocessor entry, Itanium, which the Santa Clara, Calif.-based microprocessor giant has yet to ship in volume. Years in the making, Itanium -- formerly code-named Merced -- features a new 64-bit instruction set (dubbed IA-64) and marks a nearly complete break from Intel’s aging x86 32-bit instruction set. Itanium supports 32-bit x86 code but will run it only in translation, which can severely limit performance.

Hammer, on the other hand, purports to natively support existing 32-bit x86 code, as well as new x86 code that has been extended to 64-bits. Rather than running 32-bit x86 code in translation, as does Itanium, Hammer will run it natively, in hardware. The result, AMD claims, is a microprocessor that can run x86 code of both types faster than can any of today’s microprocessors.

In positioning Hammer, AMD is attempting to play up the total cost of ownership benefits that it says obtain by virtue of a gradual transition to 64-bit computing. Rather than rushing out to deploy 64-bit Itanium-based servers and then waiting for IA-64-optimized operating systems and applications to become available, AMD executives argue, IT organizations will be able to deploy a single server platform based on the Hammer architecture to simultaneously maintain backward compatibility with 32-bit applications, even as they introduce support for a new generation of 64-bit applications.

“[Hammer] enables IT managers to take advantage of existing support, allowing them to upgrade to 64-bit software at the appropriate time and preserve their investment in 32-bit applications,” claimed Fred Weber, vice president and chief technical officer of AMD's Computation Products Group.

AMD’s first 64-bit, Hammer architecture-based microprocessor, the “Sledgehammer,” is slated to debut late this year.

Although the logic of a microprocessor that offers superior performance for both 32-bit and 64-bit applications certainly seems compelling, AMD could face an uphill battle. Almost all major operating system vendors -- IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., among them -- and a number of leading application vendors (IBM, Microsoft and Oracle Corp, for example) have pledged support for Itanium. It remains to be seen whether or not these vendors will retool their operating system platforms and/or applications to support AMD’s 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.

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