HP sees demand for 64-bit x86 servers

Hewlett-Packard Co. is considering a different route to 64-bit technology than it has previously discussed, opening the door for HP servers based on processors that use extensions to the x86 instruction set, it said Tuesday.

“HP acknowledges customer demand for support from a trusted vendor for x86 extensions technology in certain vertical segments, where specific price-performance needs exist. HP is currently assessing our options in this area. We are not disclosing information about systems, partners, or availability at this time,” the company said in a statement Tuesday.

HP doesn’t currently have many options for “x86 extensions technology.” Only Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) has released a processor that makes use of extensions technology with its Opteron chip, although rumors persist that Intel Corp. is developing a processor that either mimics AMD’s approach or uses a new method to add 64-bit capability to the x86 processors that run the majority of the world’s computers.

AMD declined to comment on the possibility of HP releasing Opteron servers.

IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. have already agreed to ship servers based on AMD’s chip. Opteron features 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set that increase the amount of memory the processor is able to address. It also comes with interconnects based on the Hypertransport standard and an integrated memory controller that helps improve 32-bit performance.

Many analysts and users think Opteron’s competitive advantage is the ability to run 64-bit applications as well as 32-bit applications on the same server. This allows users to port their applications to 64 bits when they need the extra performance without having to buy a new server.

Right now, users can only take advantage of the 64-bit capabilities of Opteron if they are running operating systems such as SuSE Linux AG’s or Mandrakesoft SA’s versions of Linux. A beta version of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Server 2003 is available, with a production version expected in the second half of 2004.

HP is unique among the other major server vendors in its support for the 64-bit Itanium processor it developed in partnership with Intel Corp. HP Itanium servers represented about 90 per cent of all Itanium servers sold last year, said Charles King, research director at The Sageza Group Inc. in Mountain View, Calif.

Because of HP’s close relationship with Intel and its 64-bit processor, many analysts had doubted that HP would want to risk that relationship by jumping on the AMD bandwagon, even after Sun and IBM made their announcements. However, the Palo Alto, Calif., company appears to be signaling that demand is building for a 64-bit product on the low end of the server market with its statement.

HP is the leading vendor of 32-bit servers based on Intel’s Xeon processor, and it wouldn’t want to risk that market position if Opteron caught on with IT buyers, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif. If Sun and IBM are able to get customers interested in their products with Opteron, there is a chance that HP could lose sales of other products to those companies, he said.

HP might also be able to segment its server businesses without offending Intel, said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. Opteron and Itanium, although both 64-bit chips, do not really compete against each other, he said.

Itanium is designed to replace the reduced instruction set computing (RISC) chips such as Sun’s UltraSparc or IBM’s Power 4 that run high-end servers for corporate databases or complex high-performance computing tasks, Haff said. It uses a different instruction set from the x86 instruction set found in most of the world’s PCs and low-end servers, which means that applications developed for x86 systems are incompatible with the Itanium processor.

Opteron stacks up against Intel’s 32-bit Xeon processor, Haff said. Xeon is currently the processor of choice for servers with between one and four processors, holding more than 80 per cent of that market.

If HP decides to release servers based on Opteron processors, Intel will feel pressure to release a chip that extends x86 technology to 64 bits, even if they don’t necessarily follow AMD’s path, Haff said.

There has been speculation for years that Intel has a x86-64 chip stashed away somewhere in its product development cycle, but the company has refused to discuss that possibility with reporters beyond stating that it will follow customer demand for such a product. An Intel spokesperson Tuesday declined to comment about future plans for a 64-bit processor with the x86 instruction set.

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