The move from 32-bit to 64

The move from 32-bit to 64

In the zippy world of microprocessors, the move towards 64-bit computing means enhanced memory, boosted performance and scalability.

And in the race to offer mightier functionality — addressing more memory and running faster numeric calculations — a battle is being waged between Intel and AMD – this time on the x86 front.

AMD came out of the gates first — about 12 months ago — with an Opteron processor chip that offers the ability to run their 32-bit x86 applications on a server that could also run 64-bit applications. This strategy is ideal for users who want to migrate to the 64-bit technology but don’t want to chuck legacy systems, AMD Australia country manager, John Robinson, said.

The strategy was ideal for enterprises that wanted a seamless transition, he said, because they don’t need to do anything different with legacy applications.

AMD’s Opteron for the server/workstation market was hatched last April. The desktop/mobile version was rolled out in September.

And while AMD was first to market with 64-bit extensions and had first contender bragging rights, Intel recently revamped its strategy and is now extending the x86 instruction set to 64-bits, a move that was long rumoured and dubbed Yamhill.

Traditionally, Intel was solely pitching its beefier Itanium 64-bit processor and not romancing the transition tech­nology arena. But because of customer demand and market dynamics, the company had moved into the transition realm. It would help bridge the 32- and 64-bit world with a transition chip, Intel’s Itanium processor family, regional manger, APAC, William Ty Wu, said.

Robinson said Intel’s move to introduce a 64-extension — and enter the blending game — signalled to AMD the company was on the right track a year ago.

“Intel’s move to offer 64-bit extensions is a strong endorsement of our strategy, something we did 12 months ago,” he said.

Analysts have said the move is necessary because the beefier 64-bit Itanium technology was often criticised for product delays, is only applicable to niche applications and is financially out of reach for many users.

As part of the latest strategy Intel announced the next generation of its Xeon processors, due in the second quarter of 2004, will add 64-bit addressing extensions. The extensions will appear in Prescott-based desktop processors in the third quarter of 2004.

According to Gartner, the latest transitory move doesn’t mean Intel has soured on Itanium.

Instead, the move suggested Intel was addressing market demand for the transition technology and would also continue to focus on the Itanium space, which had matured over the past year and offered better 64-bit performance than any transitional product, Ty Wu said.

IDC said the x86 server market was growing in importance, suggesting Intel picked the right time to get into the x86 game. The x86 server market was generating about $US5.5 billion in revenues. Revenue grew 15 per cent and unit shipments bulked up by 23 per cent.

“The new announcements regarding Intel extensions to x86 architecture, and AMD’s traction in its first year of Opteron shipments in this segment is continuing to evolve,” IDC’s server research program director, Mark Melenovsky, said. “IDC expects 2004 to be a tipping point for enterprise architecture server adoption.”

In addition to Intel’s new strategy, HP is creating waves in the server industry with its move to put Opteron chips into its ProLiant servers in addition to supporting Intel. It plans to roll out Intel Xeon 64-bit extensions into ProLiant servers later this year.

“HP traditionally has had an affinity for the Itanium product, but now this move suggests to us widespread support for AMD,” Robinson said. “HP now wants a second 64-bit product — this one being capable of running in 32-bit.”

Gartner said HP’s embrace of the Opteron would force IBM to broaden its commitment to Opteron and Dell to take another look at its technology while creating confusion around market opportunities for Itanium.

HP’s director, BCS, Asia Pacific, Peter Hall, said the latest move provided customers with a choice, offering them a broader path to move towards 64-bit computing.

As such, HP was reaching out to the channel and pitching the benefits of moving towards a 64-bit environment. The company just wrapped up a training session with more than 100 partners at the Gold Coast.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is also in the game. The company is on track to ship Windows XP 64-bit Edition for 64-Bit Extended Systems by the end of the year. MS made a beta version of Windows XP available to the public for desktops or workstations that run AMDs Athlon 64.

Intel and Microsoft also recently released software that will boost performance of Windows applications designed for 32-bit processors when running on Intel’s 64-bit Itanium 2 processors. The IA-32 Execution Layer (EL) software will be included in Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Pack 1, expected in the second half of this year.

Usual suspects beef up chips

Given the recent spate of vendor moves, what can end-users and resellers expect from the move towards 64-bit technology — whether they migrate slowly through a 32-bit processor with 64-bit extensions or jump in full speed with a 64-bit Itanium machine. “Advancements in faster processing support and memory support are key selling points,” Microsoft Australia’s Windows server product manager, Michael Leworthy, said. “The technology will extend up to 51GB of RAM – where if you look at the 32-it range, it was 64GB of RAM.”

Much like the push from 16-bit to 32-bit computing, the 64-bit move is a big jump and a path that will see a gradual transition period.

“When we moved from 16- to 32-bit, it added a whole new feature set and added performance to a whole array of activity,” AMD’s Robinson said.

“The 64-bit move isn’t happening overnight, but the transition has begun — the server workstation environment got a boost 12 months ago — and the desktop and mobile space saw developments in September,” AMD’s Robinson said. The Athlon 64 has started quite a ball rolling, gathering momentum and there’s a good uptake in Australia.”

The overall 64-bit technology, which characterises the microprocessors data stream, isn’t new. Living and breathing in the Unix environment — the RISC marketplace — for more than 10 years, it’s now beginning to make its mainstream appearance.

Intel is pitching its advanced error detection and correction feature on all major data paths. Enhanced machine check architecture, for example, provides an extensive error detection and correction. It offers the intelligence to detect, contain, correct and report errors or interference in the system.

“These capabilities are ideal for deployments in high availability environments,” Ty Wu said.

Enhanced machine check architecture, enhanced data collection and addressing were key features of the latest chips, he said. Intel chip improvements would include support for Double Data Rate (DDR2) memory and the PCI Express interconnect standard.

IBM, meanwhile, is also pitching a new chip, the 64-bit PowerPC 970FX microprocessor, which the company said would help designers confront the issues surrounding increased processing speed and reduced power consumption. Quite often, one or both of these areas is impaired.

For AMD, the key selling features of its latest technology were price and performance, Robinson said.

There had been early uptake in the market with IBM and Sun adopting AMD’s 64-bit offering.

The latest AMD chip featured HyperTransport technology, which used a point-to-point communications link with the processor, Robinson said.

The high-speed link connected the processor to other processors or central communications hubs.

Another main architectural change included the onboard memory controller, he said. By having the memory contoller on the CPU, it removed bottlenecks.

“It makes the chip run efficiently,” Robinson said.

Market uptake

Thanks to the boosted performance and memory, the technology would bring new capabilities to the PC by offering a host of new applications and markets, Robinson said.

Web hosting, post production rendering, simulation and modelling are prime examples where people are working with large files and will appreciate the extra RAM. High-end users — particularly engineers — working with large graphical files (CAD and CAM ) are another hot area suited to the technology.

Back-end servers for large databases are an obvious area where 64-bit is a requirement. Expanding beyond this area, AMD is also counting on a growing demand for security (via encryption) in mainstream business — an area that would benefit from the beefier, mightier technology.

The government sector and small corporations were also adopting the technology and were another market play for resellers, Robinson said.

Apple is also in the game with Steve Jobs announcing it’s a major area of focus for the company.

He said the strategy was to help users with video editing, DVD mastering, audio encoding and photo editing.

Apple recently announced it planned to use IBM’s PowerPC 970FX in its XServe G5 rack-mount server.

Microsoft’s Leworthy said there was an uptake in the manufacturing and financial services realm for 64-bit computing.

“There’s a good uptake for large database transactions because we’re hitting limitations of SQL with 32-bit,” he said.

For resellers, there were additional opportunities in system consolidation, HP’s Hall said.

The Itanium servers, for example, were designed to allow application stacking so resellers could go into a site and offer system consolidation (offering better management and security) as well as advice on fixing performance limitations. Resellers should look for market opportunities in financial services, medical, manufacturing and scientific research.

Intel’s Ty Wu said resellers could help customers soup up their network architecture and offer them a more advanced platform.

He said the existing computer model could not meet the complex demands for data and memory increased — and therefore the hype surrounding 64-bit computing.

“The existing architecture — which has been around for 10 to 15 years — was designed before the Internet age, and so now we need more intelligence,” Ty Wu said. “We need a newer platform to meet future demand.”

AMD’s Robinson said resellers were hungry for 64-bit computing and could make money souping up the systems.

“The high-end user has no qualms about cutting costs on fancy features — this is good for the industry and for the reseller,” he said.

Consumer demand

But is there use for the technology at the consumer level? Industry analysts have said there isn’t much demand for the technology outside of the enthusiast market.

Robinson said gamers and PC enthusiasts were demanding high-end graphics and computation.

“The technology will become more pervasive in the consumer market — the high-end starts off at the enthusiast level before it comes down to mainstream,” he said.

High-end users on the corporate front will want the performance boost and are attracted to the same price point as the 32-bit processors.

The mobile realm is also taking a shine to 64-bit computing.

Business development director for QD Innovative Computer, Danny Wang, said the benefits of the 64-bit solution from AMD, especially in a notebook form factor, made it one of the fastest ‘desktop replacement’ machines in the marketplace. It out-performed many of the P4s — especially with certain 3D applications — by up to 27 per cent.

Application action needed

The company recently rolled out the Alacritas, which Wang said was capable of fulfilling needs beyond the speed freaks and hardcore gamers market. This created a totally new type of desktop replacement notebook. Currently, Ty Wu said he didn’t see huge demand for 64-bit at the consumer level.

Work was still required before the technology would take off, HP’s Hall said. “What drives it is the ISV support — over the past 12 months there’s been a lot of movement and support for the architecture.”

He said it took time to fit the pieces together.

“Why hasn’t it moved earlier?,” Hall asked. “Well, you need to get the OS on board, then the tools in place [such as the compilers), the database players need to join, then the application vendors need to write apps.”

The ecosystem was finally in place, he said.

But Leworthy expected the home consumer space to come on board in the next three to five years.

“We will see real aggressive growth as applications get realised,” he said.

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