Advanced Micro Devices 's first 64-bit
processor, code-named Sledgehammer, inches closer to reality Thursday when the
company releases the chip's instruction set manual to software developers.
The broad release of the "AMD x86-64 Architecture Programmers Overview" gives software designers a closer look at Sledgehammer's inner workings. The company expects to ship the 64-bit processor late next year, initially for servers and workstations. It won't find its way into mainstream desktop systems for years.
At present, 64-bit processing exists only in high-end hardware such as Compaq Computer Corp.'s Alpha-based systems. Relatively few applications can take advantage of the greater data-processing capabilities 64-bit represents.
However, AMD, Intel Corp., and Microsoft Corp. are all working on 64-bit products. Software designers are expected to follow suit and tailor tomorrow's applications to take advantage of the chip's wider data paths, which means greater processing power. AMD expects initial 64-bit applications to support digital content creation, security and encryption services, and complex simulations such as weather prediction.
The chip is AMD's direct response to the Intel Itanium chip, a 64-bit processor that's expected to debut in high-end servers and workstations by early 2001.
Today's mainstream processors--AMD's Athlon and Intel's Pentium III and upcoming Pentium 4--are 32-bit processors. Current operating systems and applications are also 32-bit.
Chip Makers Take Two Paths
Both AMD and Intel realize the key to creating a successful 64-bit chip is to retain compatibility with today's 32-bit applications, but they're designing their next-generation chips differently.
Intel's Itanium is a brand-new architecture, created essentially from scratch.
AMD chose instead to build on the existing chip architecture, says Martin Booth, division marketing manager. AMD maintains its chip will consequently process today's software better than Intel's. This approach makes the transition between 32-bit and 64-bit more seamless, Booth says.
Both Intel and AMD have valid approaches to building a 64-bit chip, but AMD's is probably the more pragmatic of the two, says Mike Feibus, a principal analyst at Mercury Research.
There are many advantages to AMD's path to backward compatibility, Feibus says.
AMD's chip should appeal more to people and companies that want to retain more of their current investment.
However, there's a risk: "You're still carrying the mistakes of the past," he says.
Feibus emphasizes that 64-bit computing is a long way off for most computer users. "The world is still primarily 32 bits," he says, and it will be years before 64-bit applications hit mainstream computing.