Intel promises 64-bit extensions

Intel Corp.’s next generation Xeon processor and future versions of the Prescott Pentium 4 processors will come with 64-bit extensions technology, said Craig Barrett, Intel’s chief executive officer, Tuesday during his opening keynote address at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco.

Barrett demonstrated the technology during his speech on a Dell Dimension XPS workstation with the forthcoming Xeon processors.

Attendees were shown a demonstration of 32-bit and 64-bit airplane design applications running on a single system.

Intel joins Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) in releasing a processor with 64-bit extensions technology, which has attracted the interest of major server vendors such as IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Intel’s 64-bit extension technology will be software compatible with AMD’s 64-bit extension technology, Barrett said. There will be a few architectural differences that won’t affect application compatibility, he said.

The first Intel chip to take advantage of the 64-bit extensions technology will be one code-named Nocona, the next generation of the Xeon DP processors for workstations and low-end servers. Nocona is scheduled for release in the second quarter. Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit Extended Systems will support Nocona, said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft chief executive officer, in a videotaped presentation.

Future versions of both the Prescott processor and the Xeon MP processor will also include this technology.

Intel has been notoriously reluctant to address the issue of 64-bit extensions technology since AMD announced it would release such a product. Intel executives and technical staff members were willing to talk about the subject in theoretical terms, but always hedged their bets on whether the technology would find a market.

With IBM and Sun jumping on board with support for 64-bit extensions in the form of AMD’s Opteron server processor, and Hewlett-Packard Co. signaling its interest in 64-bit extensions technology, Intel had to put the technology on its public road map, said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

“This was inevitable. The world is going to move to 64-bit, and the market has indicated there is a groundswell of interest for low-end servers and workstations with this technology,” he said.

Some of the reluctance to discuss extensions technology was born of the Itanium project, which Intel at one point envisioned taking over the server market, Haff said.

Itanium is a 64-bit processor that uses a completely different instruction set from the x86 processors such as Opteron and Nocona. Intel markets the chip as a replacement for reduced instruction set computing (RISC) processors from companies like Sun and IBM, and has some compelling performance data to back up their claims.

But IT managers have not flocked to Itanium servers, in part because any 32-bit applications that they want to run on an Itanium server have to be rewritten for the new instruction set to take advantage of the performance capabilities.

Itanium does run 32-bit applications in a software compatibility mode, but the 32-bit performance of those applications is hard to swallow when compared to the 32-bit performance of Xeon and Opteron and the Itanium’s high price tag.

Both technologies have a future, according to Intel and analysts. As more applications are developed for Itanium, more and more companies will take advantage of its performance, Barrett said. And the Nocona processor will allow companies to develop 64-bit applications while maintaining their existing base of 32-bit applications, he said.

Additional details about the future of both Itanium and Intel’s 64-bit extensions technology will be discussed during a keynote that Intel senior vice-president and general manager Mike Fister will give Wednesday.

Barrett also showcased several other future technologies coming down the road from Intel. The company demonstrated wireless universal serial bus technology using a digital video recorder and a PC, and its Florence laptop reference design. Florence is designed to allow notebook users to take advantage of an external screen for data and the gamut of wireless technologies, including General Packet Radio Services (GPRS) and Bluetooth.

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