The 64-bit Question

Intel and AMD are both readying the release of 64-bit processors and promoting the use of 64-bit computing. As they prepare to slug it out in a fight for all important market share, both are arguing that their approach to the upgrade is superior

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By  Neil Denslow Published  July 1, 2002

I|~||~||~|Chipmakers Intel and AMD are set to go head-to-head in the second half of 2002 as both release 64-bit processors to the market. Intel’s Itanium 2, developed under the name McKinley, will take on AMD’s Operton in a battle for supremacy in the 64-bit arena.

Intel has dominated the chip industry for years, to such extent that the company was worth more than America’s 16 other listed processor manufacturers combined.

However, Ian Brown, research director for Gartner Group’s enterprise systems service, believes the silicon giant is feeling unsettled by the threat of Opteron.

“I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why Intel is going to be much more upfront about Itanium 2, talking about it much more in the press and marketing it much more aggressively than they did with the initial Itanium,” he says.

Although both vendors are moving from 32-bit to 64-bit, they have tackled the transition in different manners. With the help of HP, Intel started from scratch and designed an entire architecture for Itanium. On the other hand, AMD extended its existing 32-bit design to a 64-bit model.

The Opteron processor uses AMD’s X86 architecture, which forms the basis of its 32-bit Athlon processors. Intel however, argues that the limitations of X86 will hold back the chip and that only a complete redesign can unleash the full potential of 64-bit computing.

“The benefit of Itanium is that it’s purpose-built for its function. AMD and other people are only ever upgrading old technology,” argues Roland Jones, PR manager Middle East & Africa, Intel.

However, AMD contends that its development is actually advantageous to customers, as it will allow them to run 32-bit applications at optimal speed, something that Itanium 2 cannot do. Extending X86 means that “all those hundreds of millions of dollars of investment that people worldwide have made is not going to be downgraded or written off,” argues Raz Sobhani, sales manager, Middle East & Africa, AMD

Itanium 2 users will be forced to replace their apps because Intel has ditched RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture for its Itanium family and replaced it with EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing) instead. This will force the introduction of a revamped instruction set meaning that replacement operating systems and applications will also have to be developed. However, Intel sees this as a price worth paying for the processing power offered by Itanium 2.

Despite their collective enthusiasm for 64-bit computing, both vendors agree that to begin with it will only appeal to high end users that handle vast amounts of data. In short, there is no advantage to be had from using a 64-bit processor for applications handling 32-bits or less.

“64-bit is not for everybody and we don’t advise just anybody to move to 64-bit,” says Haider Salloum, product marketing manager, Microsoft.

“We are going to tell people that 32-bit solves 90% of all business problems, but there are still 10% that need a 64-bit solution,” he explains.

||**||II|~||~||~|Consequently, the target market for 64-bit computing will be industries needing to run large database applications, such as data warehousing, scientific applications or high-performance computing.

Such applications will benefit from a 64-bit processor’s greater floating-point abilities, which manipulates data much faster. Ferhad Patel, market development manager for Intel Middle East & North Africa, says companies will quickly realise the advantages of using 64-bit processing.

“If you look at the oil & gas sector, [for example,] it costs them many millions of dollars per day if they’re not drilling because they are doing their calculations. They will save a fortune if they can get the figures out much more quickly by using 64-bit technology,” he says.

The main reason for this accelerated computation is simply that 64-bit processors can address more than 32-bits of data. A computer’s memory or disc is like a collection of bit-size storage boxes, each of which has its own unique number or address. Applications use these addresses to find the particular piece of data they need to work on and the more addresses the processor can ‘remember’ at a time, the quicker it can work.

This addressing ability is particularly relevant in large systems that contain a huge amount of data, says Michel Guillemet, CTO, Bull Infrastructure & Systems. “For instance, when you want to use a very large database, there’s quite quickly a big advantage in using a large number of addresses,” he explains.

Itanium 2 also benefits from a bigger bus that lets it move data at a rate of 6 G/bytes/s compared to, for example, the Pentium 4’s rate of 4.6 G/bytes/s. Mike Fister, general manager of the enterprise platforms group, Intel, believes this will prove to be the Itanium 2’s killer selling point.

“The thing about 64-bit that’s compelling isn’t physical or logical addressing, that’s [only] a small piece of it… You can put 4 G/bytes of memory on an IA-32 and virtualise larger than that already. The thing that’s compelling is being able to move pieces of information around in bigger chunks,” he argues.

Itanium 2 also makes more use of compilers by using them to detect and read the parallelism within the instruction set before it hits the processor itself. A lot more is done ahead of time through speculation and this, says Brown, “really gives it a performance boost.”

Despite these promises, customers have so far failed to be invigorated by Intel’s 64-bit processors. For instance, Gartner Group reported that Intel only managed to sell 72 Itanium systems up to the end of 2001.

Sobhani suggest that customers are put off by Itanium’s lack of backward compatibility, the fact that it won’t run 32-bit applications at optimal speed. This makes the transition to Itanium harder to do, he argues, as users have to recompile their applications.

“[By contrast,] AMD has said that 64-bit applications are going to be important, but not everyone will require them to start with. People will gradually move from 32-bit to 64-bit with time. As a result, people will want to use both types of applications in an optimal way,” he explains.

Brown agrees that “it’s a less disruptive move to go along the Hammer route than it would be to go for the Itanium 2 because if you going to go the Itanium route, you’re going to have to recompile to get the benefits of performance.”

||**||III|~||~||~|However, Fister argues that the limited sales of the first Itanium reflected historical patterns. He argues that other enterprise architectures, such as Alpha and Precision, also sold only a limited amount when first rolled out, but sales grew over time. Itanium will do the same, he suggests.

“You can plot their maturity versus volume over a number of years and our position on that curve is not that much different to theirs. The number of Itanium [units] shipped was about consistent with the number of Alphas or PAs at a similar point in time. What that says is the longer time goes on, the more opportunity there is for a larger volume,” he argues.

Armand Zuntini, technical consultant, EMEA pre-sales & competence center, HP, also expects Itanium 2 to better its predecessor’s sales figures, due to the changes Intel has made to make it faster.

“[Version 1] is okay for beta database applications, but in terms of performance, customers are waiting for the Itanium 2,” he says.

Despite this increased power, Gartner’s Brown still thinks Itanium 2 will only do ‘marginally’ better than its predecessor. The basis for his scepticism is doubts over the number of applications available. Applications will be key in driving the market for 64-bit computing, as currently, few end users are actively looking for a 64-bit solution.

“I think most customers tend to think in terms of Unix, Linux or Windows rather than 32-bit or 64-bit. They’ll be looking for applications supported in a Windows environment and if they happen to be available with full Windows support on the Itanium platform then at that point they will consider it as a viable platform for their application,” Brown explains.

Intel is clearly aware of the importance of applications and it is eager to tell people about how many are on the way. The phrase “100 on sale, 400+ in development” was constantly repeated at the recent Intel Developer Forum in Munich. More practical steps include the IA-64 fund, a US$250 million war chest backed by Intel, Microsoft and others to help ISVs come up with 64-bit applications.

However, few ISVs have yet to begin development work or really push applications. The apps that have come out so far are primarily development tools or are aimed at early adopters.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Salloum believes this explains the low sales figures within the Middle East. The region has both a low developer base and a reluctance to implement new technologies until they have been thoroughly tested elsewhere, he says.

Brown attributes ISVs’ reticence to doubts about when full production versions of 64-bit operating systems will be available. The release date of Microsoft’s first 64-bit operating system, for instance, has yet to be confirmed and he says that ISVs are not going to start shipping commercial applications until it is.

However, Fister remains confident that commercial 64-bit applications will take off and highlights the number of test projects that are already being undertaken on Itanium. He says that the company knows about ‘hundreds’ of these pilots worldwide and expects that many more are being run through OEMs, which Intel doesn’t know about.

Fister believes that this OEM support is a promising sign for future sales, as server makers have invested enourmous amounts in Itanium 2-based servers, designing new chip spaces and chipsets, which they are obviously going to want to make a return on.
Nineteen OEMs are investing in manufacturing Itanium 2 systems, including HP and IBM, which have both announced they will be consolidating their server product range exclusively on Itanium 2.

“At HP, we have to make sure Itanium 2 will be a success because we do not have any back up solution,” admits Zuntini.

Brown agrees that the OEM support is significant and believes that it could be Intel’s trump card in the battle for 64-bit supremacy.

No major US vendor has ever used an AMD processor in a server and — despite reported interest from Dell — none has so far committed to Opteron. As such, AMD could well be locked out of the enterprise market.

“I really think it’s going to be down to the OEM take up... [and] which of the OEMs is prepared to come out with chipsets for Opteron and really go ahead with it. [None] of the OEMs have put their head above the parapet and made a commitment in that sense,” Brown says.||**||

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