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Extensions Give Intel 2-Prong Attack Against AMD

Intel this week unveiled its plans to roll out 64-bit extensions for its Intel Xeon line of high-end 32-bit processors, formalizing one of Intel's long-anticipated responses to the AMD processors that offer 64-bit computing using the x86 instruction set.

While AMD's chips are shipping now, Intel promised its first release of processors supporting the 64-bit extensions within a few months. Code-named "Nocona," the next generation of Intel Xeon processors is slated to ship in the first half with support for 64-bit extensions, company officials said at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

The central issue is the different architectures in Intel's 32-bit and 64-bit processors. The Itanium family uses a newer instruction set, which shares many design goals with the high-performance RISC processors built for use with Unix operating systems. Intel's 32-bit products use the x86 instruction set, which grew up with PCs.

AMD exploited the disconnect with the launch of its AMD64 and Opteron processors; both use the x86 instruction set and 32-bit applications can run on the 64-bit processors without modification.

While arguing that it has good momentum with Itanium anyway, with 100,000 processors shipped in 2003, Intel is now coming at the issue from two directions. First is a top-down approach of running 32-bit applications on Itanium 2 processors. In January, a collaboration with Microsoft produced a 32-bit driver that allows unmodified 32-bit applications to be run on Itanium 2 processors. Those applications run at about 50 percent to 70 percent of the clockspeed of the Itanium 2 processor, Intel officials said. (See related article).

Second is the new bottom-up approach represented by the new 64-bit extensions announced this week. While AMD has more than a year head start on shipping product for the bottom-up market, the Intel announcement has the potential to put many purchases on hold as IT buyers wait to see what Intel's offering looks like.

Assuming Intel delivers Nocona on time, AMD won't have enjoyed much of an advantage in Microsoft Windows server environments for its year-long lead. Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit Extended Systems, which supports the AMD processor and will also support Nocona, is still in beta. Microsoft said this week that the final version won't be available until the second half of the year.

Meanwhile, several major system vendors lined up to declare that they would support and include the 64-bit extensions in their systems as soon as Nocona ships. HP's chief strategy and technology officer Shane Robison said Xeon processors with 64-bit extension technology would make it into its product line. Susan Whitney, general manager of IBM's eServer xSeries said the 64-bit extension technology would be incorporated into IBM eServer BladeCenter, eServer xSeries rack-optimized and tower systems and IntelliStation workstations.

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Because of the SMP nature of Unisys ES7000 line, the company will need to wait for the Xeon MP version, which will follow the Nocona chip. Feverston said Intel is saying that will ship sometime in 2005.

Intel left no doubt about which processor line it favors for the enterprise -- calling the Itanium its flagship. "Intel plans to innovate on its flagship enterprise architecture with plans to achieve up to double the performance over the Intel Xeon processor family at platform cost parity by 2007," Intel said in a statement. Currently the top Xeon MP processor, at 2.8 GHz with 2 MB of cache, lists for $3,692 each in 1,000-unit quantities. The top Itanium 2 processor, a 1.5-GHz chip with 6 MB of cache, is more expensive at $4,227.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.

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