It's hard to overestimate the importance of Advanced Micro Devices Opteron x86, 64-bit processor. In just over a year, the three major enterprise hardware vendors have built offerings around it, and AMD's biggest competitor, Intel, is producing its own version of the chip. Opteron is forcing change.
What this means for users is this: The 32-bit-only processor is about to go the way of the 16-bit chip.
"By year-end, we will be selling very, very few 32-bit systems," said Paul Miller, vice president for industry-standard servers at Hewlett-Packard.
As users refresh or add industry-standard servers, they'll seed their data centers with 64-bit-capable x86 processors. The pricing differences between current 32-bit boxes and those running on 64-bit chips will be negligible in the near future, so the reason for buying 32-bit chips will gradually disappear, say vendors and analysts. Think of 64-bit capability as a free upgrade, ready for use when the applications arrive.
Opteron has gained a lot of attention because it allows users to run 32-bit and 64-bit x86 applications on the same chip, giving users the flexibility to gradually move to the 64-bit world. But the chip also includes architectural changes that may speed a 32-bit application's performance.
For now, early Opteron adopters like Aristotle Balogh, senior vice president of operations and infrastructure at VeriSign, tend to have memory-hungry custom-built applications. VeriSign already uses many RISC, and Intel-based servers to support, among other things, directory services for the .com registry. It has been testing two and four-processor Opteron systems, putting tremendous processing loads on them in a 'beat the box up until it drops' test. The chip has performed well, Balogh says.
Balogh can get 64-bit capacity from RISC-based Unix systems. But a four-processor Opteron box with 32GB of memory will cost about US$25,000, whereas a Unix box may cost more than $100,000.
"With traditional Unix vendors, it is a very expensive proposition," says Balogh.
The memory gain allowed by a 64-bit chip is a big advantage, but it's not the only one. Opteron, which can run 32 and 64-bit applications, is gathering support from some 32-bit users because of how it's designed.
AMD has developed what it calls HyperTransport technology, which directly connects the CPU to the memory, eliminating the need for a bus. This reduces latency and speeds processing time, which is why Automated Trading Desk LLC, a company that provides trading technology and financial trading services, started using Opteron on Altus servers from San Francisco-based Penguin Computing.
Eric Hunter, senior Linux systems administrator at the Mount Pleasant-based company, says it runs custom-built applications that use a lot of memory, and 'getting rid of the bottleneck' between the memory and CPU was the main concern.
"We just saw tremendous increases in performance in our test box," Hunter says.
Sixty-four bit processing power is suited to programs that require large data sets that need to go above a 32-bit processor's 4GB memory limitation. Many of the applications taking advantage of this today are scientific and involve design and rendering.
For instance, the University of Utah's Center for High-Performance Computing in Salt Lake City has been recompiling its 32-bit applications to 64 bits, using a compiler developed by PathScale. This speeds up processing time between 10 to 20 percent, depending on the application - a significant gain for applications that run over many hours, said Martin Cuma. Cuma is in charge of scientific application programming at the center.
But most important for the university is the increased memory addressability. Sixty-four bit computing has enormous memory potential, calculated two to the 64th power, which equals many terabytes. Instead of simulations that have 100 atoms, for instance, researchers can run them with 200 atoms.
"All of these applications are really memory-hungry," says Cuma.
For users that don't have an immediate need for those memory gains, the arrival of 64-bit applications will drive adoption, says Don McPherson, network operating systems and database administrator for a nonprofit organization.
McPherson says he can see a need for 64-bit memory because of the demands being imposed on databases. "We're pushing more data, and doing more things with databases," he says.
Analysts, vendors and users aren't certain how long it will take 64-bit computing to become mainstream, but operating systems that support x86-based 64-bit chips are arriving. There are 64-bit versions of Linux already available, and Microsoft intends to release a 64-bit version of Windows XP by the end of the year. AMD and Intel are expected to be binary-compatible with Windows 64-bit.
"We expect the transition to 64-bit software will be fairly slow," says Jon Sharp, director of platform marketing at Intel, which plans to release its own x86, 64-bit chip this summer, the EM64T.
"The transition to 64-bit operating systems will happen somewhat faster.
"What people will care about is being able to run the two applications, 32-bit and 64-bit, side by side."
Intel views its Itanium 64-bit chip, which uses a different architecture from x86, as a challenger to the high-end RISC systems. The chip has 'massive parallel resources,' larger cache and more memory bandwidth, says Sharp. Itanium is well suited for use in large, multiprocessor scale-up systems which have been Unix's domain, he says.
It's not a question of if people will go to 64 bits, it's a question of when says Paul Terry, chief technical officer at Cray Canada, whose parent company, Cray, is building a 10,000-processor Opteron system for the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories.
Some key x86 dates
1978: The Intel 8086 16-bit processor arrives, the first x86 instruction set processor.
1985: Intel releases the 386, the first 32-bit microprocessor.
2001: Itanium, Intel's first 64-bit processor, debuts. It's built on a new architecture, Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing.
April 2003: AMD releases Opteron, the first 64-bit x86-compatible chip.
February 2004: Intel says it will add 64-bit extension technology to its Xeon processor. Release is expected by Q3.
Late 2004: Microsoft is expected to release a 64-bit version of XP.
AMD's wrecking ball
What will users see from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. over the next year in regard to Opteron? The most significant step will be to have a dual-core solution available. I think that's going to be a wrecking ball. I really do. I think that is going to dramatically change the dynamics that today has kept people from going from two-processor to four-processor systems. I think the migration to 90-nanometer fabrication is going to bring about some very interesting changes that will put us in a very competitive position.
Who is going to be on the receiving end of the wrecking ball? Well, that's interesting. Our plan is to take share from Intel in the Xeon space and in those places that were considered Itanium.
(Tom Krazit contributed to this report.)