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Out With the Old?

When it's time for a new server, which upgrade path will you choose?

The 64-bit question is: Should you jump feet-first into servers running Intel's new Itanium 2 6M processor, or ease into the 64-bit computing care of AMD's 32/64-bit Opteron chips? The answer: It depends.

It's just the latest computing conundrum to spin out of the ongoing speed-ahead/easy-does-it debate between Intel and AMD. Every time Intel wants to make a great leap forward in die, bus or memory type, AMD is there to offer a money-saving, legacy-sustaining alternative.

The dual 32/64-bit approach of Opteron server chips is AMD's latest retort to another Intel grand plan. It offers 32-bit server buyers a way to grow into 64-bit computing without leaping across the chasm between Intel's 32-bit Xeon and 64-bit Itanium processors. The underlying AMD64 design includes significant performance enhancements, but basically it's an extension of the x86 architecture we've been using for years.

Intel rejected the evolutionary approach. Instead, it spent a dozen years and just a few bucks short of a gazillion developing the entirely new EPIC architecture for Itaniums. Like AMD64, it processes instructions in 64-bit chunks and can address more than the 32-bit memory limit of 4GB. But Itaniums also include superior data protection and are designed to scale up for another decade or two. They feature a substantial and growing amount of on-chip cache for faster data fetching and hundreds of registers in which to hold it.

Itaniums have what it takes to muscle in on the data center, Web commerce and the other big iron applications dominated by RISC/Unix combinations. They extend Wintel standards-based computing upward, letting you mix and match hardware and software from different vendors.

The rub is, Intel needs software developers to invest in 64-bit programs while supporting their 32-bit versions. Having Opterons hanging around takes the urgency out of upgrades and undermines Intel's argument for separate
32-bit and 64-bit universes, notes Dean McCarron, principal analyst for Mercury Research. Opterons don't compete against Itaniums, whose performance is needed by only about 10 percent of all servers, says Kevin Krewell, senior analyst for the Microprocessor Report. They offer AMD's usual comparable performance at lower prices than Xeon servers.

A Poke in the Eye
According to Krewell, Opteron is also "a finger in the eye of Intel," a painful reminder of the Itanium's shortcomings with 32-bit software. Instead of all its software buddies celebrating the birth of its third-generation Itanium 2 6M, Intel has to listen to AMD brag about how its offspring run native 32-bit code right alongside 64-bit applications.

Not even Intel claims the way its first two Itaniums ran 32-bit software was pretty. Emulation never is. Intel hopes a new software emulation technique, called IA-32 Execution Layer, will give Itanium 2 6M a makeover. But again, developers need to add it to their operating systems. Then an Itanium 2 6M will supposedly run 32-bit software about as fast as a Xeon MP.

That's nothing to brag about, but then emulation is only meant to let the occasional 32-bit application run OK, points out McCarron. Itanium isn't intended for desktops or file-sharing and Web server duties. Those are jobs for 32-bit Xeons.

But the dual-universe story will get a little wobblier later this year, when Intel ships its low-power Itanium, code-named Deerfield. It brings 64-bit computing to blades, other midrange servers and CAD workstations. AMD will answer with its own Athlon 64 processor, which is envisioned to be in laptops and which is due out just in time to spoil the Deerfield celebration.

In some respects, AMD is selling 64-bit sizzle-it's a little early to argue that we need to address more than 4GB of memory on anything short of our super-duper servers. But then, that's how city dwellers end up with four-wheel-drive. No, you don't really need it. But it's nice to know that if you're ever tapped to drive up a steep incline in a Toyota commercial, you're ready.

In brief, we have two different views of how we'll get to 64-bit computing, neither of which is leakproof.

Which Story to Buy?
Is 64-bit computing for you? If you have a large data center running a fast-growing e-commerce site or something like Oracle 9i, Itanium can help. If your servers just dish up general office productivity applications, you're about to profit from rigorous competition between Opteron and Xeon marketers.

Opterons might have an edge if your company straddles both worlds and has a lot of homegrown software. Large developers can be expected to recompile their applications for 64 bits, but it just won't be worthwhile for every app of every small developer and company. Security is one 64-bit application we could all benefit from-encryption/decryption, biometrics and other security duties on edge servers.

How soon before 64-bit processors wind up in desktops? Well, that's a 64-bit question for another occasion. Estimates range between a year and a decade. It depends on whose view of computing's evolution you buy.

SOFT ON 64

Some 350 applications are being recompiled for Intel Itaniums. The newer Opteron has fewer supporters. But many important enterprise applications are being rewritten for both 64-bit chips:

  • Linux and Windows versions of IBM's DB2 database program and WebSphere business software (www.ibm.com)
  • Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 operating system, SQL Server 2000 database platform and Visual Studio.NET programming tools (www.microsoft.com)
  • Oracle's 9i data center/e-commerce platform for Windows and Linux (www.oracle.com)
  • SAP's mySAP Web Application Servers for both Windows and Linux (www.sap.com)
  • Windows and Linux versions of SAS Alliance Business Intelligence (www.sas.com)


Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.

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This article was originally published in the August 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Out With the Old?.

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