Analysis: Moving to 64-bit

Focus on complete system needs with less emphasis on whether a processor is 32 or 64-bit, says Meta Group research director Kevin McIsaac.

“Customers don’t need to care [about 64-bit],” McIsaac said. “There are only a few places where 64-bit has advantages such as scientific applications, large file systems, and large databases. However, many databases run fine with 32-bit.”

Meta says that Intel will have 54 percent of the data centre 2007and will increase that to more than 80 percent in 2012.

McIsaac said Intel's adoption of 64-bit extensions, “is an interesting and bold move by AMD and it’s the first time I’ve seen Intel follow someone else’s lead”.

“The 64-bit extensions won’t be a barrier and will make sure Intel chips can grow in the data centre,” he said. McIsaac, although seeing a “very slow” Itanium uptake, believes HP’s decision to migrate to commodity processors for its systems is a good one.

“HP’s high-end machines will have specific features that happen to be 64-bit,” he said. “Traditional Unix and RISC will become a high-end legacy as the market will move to Intel.” Angus Jones, HP’s marketing manager for industry standard servers, said Intel’s decision to adopt 64-bit extensions to Xeon is not disruptive to the company’s Itanium plans.

“HP is migrating five platforms to three – Non-Stop, Integrity, and Proliant – and both AMD and Intel’s x84-64 processors are part of Proliant,” Jones said. “Intel’s decision gives us a platform to accelerate customers to 64-bit where they get more memory and higher performance.”

Jones said the decision has come at no financial cost to HP which will continue to offer Itanium systems for better “overall performance” but, unlike Sun, will not be porting their commercial Unix to Opteron.

Stepping up to 64-bit

Although Intel’s Itanium 64-bit architecture has been on the market for a number of years now, the company’s decision to add 64-bit extensions to its 32-bit Xeon processors shows that the technology is needed today, according to AMD’s Australia and New Zealand country manager John Robinson.

“Intel’s decision endorses AMD’s stance and [confirms] that 64-bit processing is needed today,” Robinson said. “It’s good to be a leader and shows that customers need to go to 64-bit [from 32-bit] the same way as they went from 16- to 32-bit.”

Robinson is seeing good local adoption of the Opteron and Athlon64 processors and puts it down to a large 32-bit install base.

“There are too many legacy applications and too much to leave behind to go directly to 64-bit,” he said. “The 64-bit whole jump didn’t take off.” Robinson said HP’s recent announcement it will build Opteron-based systems is a “terrific endorsement”.

“The billions spent by HP suggest an endorsement in terms of a performance enriched and competitively priced processor,” he said. “Opteron is very disruptive and has gained traction. A lot of people have changed direction because of it.”

Although AMD’s 64-bit offerings support native 32-bit processing, they are designed with scale-up in mind.

“It is feasible to put many processors together as HyperTransport allows efficient scale-up,” Robinson said. (HyperTransport is a standard for linking chips such as the CPU (central processing unit) and the memory in a system. The standard increases the speed at which data can be moved around the chip, and reduces the number of buses required to handle those links.)

Robinson sees the 64-bit market becoming more commoditised when Microsoft debuts 64-bit support in Windows and is also wooing corporate and government buyers who want to protect they investment until at least 2008.

The 64-bit establishment

Although AMD and Intel have grabbed the recent spotlight over 64-bit computing, the technology itself is not new, and both IBM and Sun continue to invest heavily in their Power and UltraSparc processor architectures respectively.

Chris Farrow, IBM’s pSeries business unit executive for Australia and New Zealand, said the market is at a point where customers with 32-bit computing environments need more “breathing space”.

“IBM’s Power architecture has a set of criteria for solving problems which is different and complementary to the new Intel and AMD architectures,” Farrow said. “Power continues to expand the boundaries of computing in terms of memory, number crunching, and general I/O.”

IBM claims to be first to market with servers based on both Itanium and Opteron in addition to its own 64-bit architecture. Farrow, who has been involved with IBM’s systems and processor technology since the mid-eighties, said 32-bit compatibility was essential for a smooth transition to 64-bit and remains a characteristic of Power.

“In the beginning the idea of 64-bit computing was to provide a common base for our customer base but IBM has continued to expand the reach of 64-bit processors to all types of markets,” he said. “The Power architecture is built into devices of all types of usage including pSeries, iSeries, storage systems, graphics adaptors, game consoles, embedded devices, routers and switches, and, of course, Apple Computers. Power is a technology where you bet your business and is used to solve crucial business problems.”

Angus McDonald, Sun Microsystems Australia CTO agrees that Intel and AMD’s 64-bit movements are a “natural extension”. “We welcome the move as people want the large memory support and higher precision in 64-bit,” MacDonald said. “Our message is of ‘systemness’ made up of an operating system and componentry, and we are moving away from more clockspeed to throughput computing.”

Sun recently inked a technology partnership with AMD to help scale its processors and has started shipping its first Opteron-based sytems.

“The biggest mistake Intel made was breaking continuity by not supporting 32-bit,” MacDonald said. “AMD has wisely supported 32-bit and is unlikely to fail.”

MacDonald is “uncertain” what Intel’s 64-bit architecture is, and believes that HP will have a challenge providing a competitor to Solaris.

“I don’t think HP-UX on Itanium is a threat as HP is running 18 months behind in what it is doing,” he said. “HP is torn between Windows and HP-UX and is dabbling in Linux. And the ISV take-up of Itanium hasn’t been great.”

MacDonald said emerging data-intensive technologies like RFID will test traditional software and CPU architectures and pave the way for throughput computing.

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