AMD readies 64-bit hardware, software

Advanced Micro Devices started showing a server running its forthcoming 64-bit Opteron server processor and a prototype 64-bit version of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system at Comdex in Las Vegas Monday. The display of technology comes a day after analysts and industry executives at the conference debated the future of 64-bit computing in the enterprise and in the home at a roundtable discussion.

Servers using 64-bit processors and operating systems are able to handle computing tasks that require more memory than the 2G-byte limit of current 32-bit processors. Microsoft has already released a 64-bit version of Windows designed specifically for Intel Corp.'s 64-bit Itanium server processor, and will likely make an AMD version available when the Opteron makes its debut in the first half of next year.

A benefit of AMD's Opteron technology is that it allows companies to keep their existing 32-bit applications on the platform, gradually migrating toward 64 bits as they need more performance or develop new applications. The Itanium processor uses a different instruction set than the x86 instruction set used by other desktop and server processors from Intel and AMD.

The companies compete against existing 64-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computing) chips from Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp., and others. RISC systems are powerful and well-established but relatively expensive, and AMD wants to convince users to adopt its lower-cost technologies.

The demand for 64-bit computing is difficult to assess right now, according to a panel of industry experts assembled by AMD Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas.

"Most people agree that it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," said Dirk Meyer, vice president of AMD's computational products group, speaking about the emergence of x86-based 64-bit computing into the enterprise.

However, that "when" might not be soon enough for AMD, which is facing a number of challenges in getting the company back to profitability over the next year. In a separate release Monday, the Sunnyvale, California, company said it will need to take a noncash restructuring charge of between US$300 million and $600 million in the fourth quarter, reflecting the company's recent layoffs and cost-cutting initiatives.

"It took 10 years to fully recognize the benefits of the move from 16-bit computing to 32-bit computing, with the introduction of Windows 95," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for research firm Insight 64 in Saratoga, California. This migration to 64 bits probably won't take as long, since the chips will be offered at competitive prices, but it does take some time for operating system and application vendors to catch up with the benefits offered by new hardware technology, he said.

Jean Bozman, vice president of global enterprise solutions at IDC, agreed. (IDC is a division of International Data Group Inc., parent company of IDG News Service.)"The chips come first, followed by the operating systems, then the applications," she said, referring to the path of advances in technology.

However, the gaming community is poised to take advantage of the new technology sooner than the corporate world, said Mark Rein, vice president of marketing for Epic Games Inc. The ability to make use of more system memory than 32-bit processors and operating systems allow will let game developers move even closer toward delivering realistic movie-style graphics in games, he said.

The ultimate adoption of 64-bit technology will probably be driven by an economic recovery, when chief executive officers and chief financial officers are more comfortable spending money on the technology, several panelists agreed. The growing need for an infrastructure replacement cycle will also help drive sales of 64-bit processors and operating systems, they said.

AMD's President and Chief Executive Officer Hector Ruiz is expected to discuss 64-bit computing and other AMD technologies during his keynote address Tuesday morning at Comdex.

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