International Data Corp. (IDC) is forecasting the market will move towards 64-bit x86 processors but says companies will take a “no risk”, gradual approach to migration.

This, however, does not signify the end of Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC)-based processors, said Alan Freedman, an analyst at Toronto-based IDC Canada. Instead, he said, RISC shops should capitalize on the increasing focus on 64-bit applications by designing complementary architectures. (RISC architecture reduces chip complexity by using simpler instructions).

“Abandoning existing application software is not practical,” said Freedman.

The IDC analyst was among the speakers at the Toronto launch of Sun Microsystem’s newest series of Sun Fire x64 servers, which the company says provide exceptional performance, reliability and energy efficiency.

Earlier this month, Sun announced the availability of the new Sun Fire x64 multi-core servers – X2100, X4100 and X4200 – loaded with AMD Opteron processors running the Solaris 10 operating system. The servers also run on the Linux and Windows operating systems, and are qualified to work with Sun’s portfolio of software, storage and network switches.

Sun said these new servers consume about one-third the power, deliver one-and-a-half times the performance, and cost half as much as Dell’s four-way servers.

The Sun Fire X4100 and Sun Fire X4200 are the first x64 servers based on designs from the team led by one of Sun’s founders, Andy Bechtolsheim.

“The new Sun Fire X4100 and Sun Fire X4200 servers are designed to deliver the highest CPU performance in an enterprise-class 1U and 2U chassis, with complete remote management capabilities,” said Bechtolsheim, chief architect and senior vice-president, network systems group, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems. “These systems deliver a combination of performance, features and value to customers that is not available from any other server supplier today.”

According to Freedman the benefits of 64-bit computing include access to much larger amounts of memory, as well as faster and more precise floating point mathematical calculations for scientific and engineering applications.

He said the technology could also provide cost savings, as fewer 64-bit systems can handle workloads that otherwise require a greater number of 32-bit systems.

However, certain concerns, particularly in administration and maintenance, have been raised about the 64-bit technology, said Freedman. “32-bit applications will have to be re-coded to take full advantage of the new architecture. All device drivers will have to be re-written for 64-bit [systems], and some older devices might not even have 64-bit drivers written for them.”

IDC Canada predicts revenue from x86 servers will continue to grow between 2004 and 2009, and majority of those servers would run on 64-bit processors. But RISC servers will remain strong with 34 per cent market revenue, said Freedman.

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