Hammer Time: AMD's 64-bit challenge

So you think Intel Corp.'s oft-delayed Itanium processor is the only 64-bit challenger to Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and IBM Corp.'s domination of the high-end enterprise server market? Think again. Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) has its own 64-bit solution, code-named Hammer, aimed at the middle-tier, Intel-compatible server space where Xeon now rules.

What makes Clawhammer (for workstations, due in the first quarter of 2002) and Sledgehammer (for servers, due in the second quarter of 2002) unique is that they extend the x86 instruction set--used by all current Intel and AMD processors for PCs--from 32 bits to 64. This means existing x86-compatible apps and operating systems will run on Hammer processors without modification and--thanks to higher clock speeds--should run at a faster clip than on current 32-bit chips.

AMD believes the incremental approach to 64-bit computing will appeal to many companies. "We're offering CIOs and MIS managers the ability to move up on their own terms and at their own pace," says Bob Mitton, divisional marketing manager of enterprise products at AMD. "They can buy hardware that runs everything they own today. [If they want to upgrade to 64 bits] they can test every application on a case-by-case basis."

Nevertheless, OS and software developers will have to rewrite or recompile their products to take advantage of Hammer's 64-bit capabilities, which causes many industry watchers to wonder: Can AMD muster their support?

The company has tried to entice developers by releasing a software simulator of Hammer. Currently, the Linux community is developing a version of that OS for the processor, and Sun has expressed an interest in making a Solaris OS for it. But industry watchers are skeptical. "AMD is two years behind Intel in gaining software support for its 64-bit instruction set," says Linley Gwennap, principal analyst for the Linley Group. "Intel's Itanium also is supported by every major server hardware vendor except Sun, whereas AMD does not have any major server design wins. Sledgehammer's market share in large servers is likely to be small unless Itanium suffers additional significant delays."

But there is room in the midsize server space, AMD insists, because the Hammer processors run perfectly well at 32 bits and their success therefore will not depend exclusively on software support. "[With Hammer,] you're essentially getting 64 bits for free," says Mitton.

To an IT department, a gradual migration that employs a known quantity like x86 is attractive. But your company may never get the chance to evaluate Hammer unless a top-tier vendor such as Compaq brings AMD into its server line. And according to AMD, it's still too early to announce anything on this subject.

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