Intel’s Otellini drops hints about x86 64-bit chips

Intel Corp.’s president and chief operating officer Paul Otellini delivered one of the company’s strongest endorsements for adding 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set Wednesday, but Intel still thinks a market for the technology has not arrived.

During an interview available over the Internet with Schwab Soundview Capital Markets analyst Hans Mosesmann, Otellini promised that when the market for x86-64 bit technology emerges, “we will be there.” Intel has been very reticent to discuss 64-bit extensions during the past few years as rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) prepared and released its Opteron server processor and Athlon 64 desktop processor.

Intel has never actually dismissed the concept, but has stated on several occasions that until operating systems and applications are available that can take advantage of 64-bit technology, there is no point in delivering a product. With Opteron gaining the support of IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. last year, and possibly Hewlett-Packard Co. this week, anticipation is mounting that Intel will finally acknowledge the arrival of that x86 64-bit market with demonstrations or announcements of a chip bearing that technology.

Otellini is still skeptical about the market for such a processor, saying “there’s no 64-bit market per se right now,” outside of the high-end servers that use chips like Intel’s Itanium processor, Sun’s UltraSparc processor, or IBM’s Power4 chip.

However, Intel is unlikely to let such a market pass them by, he said. “You can be fairly confident that when there is software from an application and operating system standpoint, that we will be there,” he said.

Most of the companies considering Opteron servers are looking at servers with one to four processors, a market currently dominated by Intel’s 32-bit Xeon processor. Xeon servers should be able to handle the demands of most high-performance computing and corporate users right now, Otellini said. Intel also thinks Itanium can make inroads in servers with one or two processors as well as workstations used by the high performance computing market in the coming months and years, he said.

“So it gets down to the client,” Otellini said. A 64-bit chip can address more than 4Gb of memory, the current limit of 32-bit chips. But the cost of adding more than 4Gb of memory to a desktop PC would be between US$2,000 to US$3,000 right now, and that’s not practical on a desktop that costs around US$700, he said.

He also discussed the lack of available production operating systems and applications that can take advantage of 64-bit extensions, which is mostly true on the desktop side. Opteron users have the choice of 64-bit Linux operating systems from SuSE Linux AG and MandrakeSoft SA, and IBM and Oracle Corp. have ported their databases to the chip. Only SuSE has a desktop version available, and Epic Games Inc. is among the few companies to offer 64-bit applications for the desktop.

Both Opteron and Athlon 64 allow users to run their 32-bit applications on the same computer as their 64-bit applications, and Otellini said that any x86 64-bit Intel technology would come with the same compatibility.

“Backwards compatibility is something we invented. You would not be a viable microprocessor company if you didn’t maintain backwards compatibility,” he said.

The key question is whether Intel chooses to use the same extensions that AMD has used in the Athlon 64 and Opteron chips, or if it goes down a different path. Microsoft Corp. has invested a great deal of time and money in developing a version of Windows for AMD’s technology, and it might not be that excited about building another operating system that needs to adhere to a different set of instructions, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, Calif., in an interview earlier this week.

The full version of Windows for both the desktop and server versions of AMD’s technology is not expected until the second half of this year, almost a year after it was first expected to make its debut.

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