Intel's 32/64-Bit Chips Draw Interest

Low cost and processing power may speed broader move to 64-bit computing
Intel's introduction last week of X86 microprocessors with 64-bit capabilities is expected to speed the migration of desktops and data centers to a new world of 64-bit computing, fueled by advancements in processor technology and, just as important, much lower prices.

"Sixty-four-bit computing is now in the commodity space," says Joe Bedard, systems administrator for Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska company that helps companies do business with native people in that region.

The introduction of the 32/64-bit-capable Opteron processor from Advanced Micro Devices Inc. a year ago, and now Intel's Enhanced Memory 64 Technology for its Xeon processors, will provide servers with greater computational capabilities and make it easier to justify new equipment purchases, Bedard says.

Arctic Slope provides data-center operations for about 2,000 customers located throughout North America. The data center has relied on 64-bit computing to help it meet the memory needs associated with running an Oracle database, including financial applications to handle the $1 billion a year in revenue. "Oracle is a real memory hog, but we couldn't afford a whole bunch of boxes to run single instances of Oracle," he says.

The company began looking at alternatives to expand its data center and considered RISC-based systems that typically cost $100,000 or more. Arctic Slope eventually settled on an Opteron system that cost only $23,000 and "blew the doors off the [RISC] machines in performance."

Key developments in adding 64-bit capabilities to standard X86 computing systems

April 2003 AMD introduces 32/64-bit Opteron

1Q 2004 IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun begin shipping Opteron-based servers

June 2004 Intel introduces 32/64-bit Xeon for workstations

3Q 2004 Intel expects to ship 32/64-bit Xeons for servers

4Q 2004 Microsoft plans to ship 64-bit-capable Windows operating system

2Q 2005 Microsoft's SQL Server is expected to ship with 64-bit capabilities

Intel's 32/64-bit chips will create even greater pricing pressure, says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at research firm Insight 64. "This gives customers incredible power," he says. "We'll see a migration away from classic RISC platforms toward industry-standard systems."

As Intel rolls out the new chips, beginning sometime next year, virtually all computers, from the desktop to high-end data-center systems, will be 64-bit-capable, whether they're based on an X86 architecture, Intel's Itanium, or a RISC processor. The relative low cost of systems based on Intel and AMD chips could speed a transition to 64-bit computing that will be faster than the shift from 16-bit to 32-bit systems, which took almost 10 years to complete, analysts say.

Important to this transition will be the introduction of applications and operating systems that can take full advantage of 64-bit extensions to the X86 platform, including Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server for the extended X86 environments, which are expected in the next 12 months.

Applications with memory-intensive requirements, such as database servers and systems used for content creation and graphics, will be able to take advantage of 64-bit computing most fully, Brookwood says. In 32-bit based systems, memory addressability is limited to 4 Gbytes. In 64-bit systems, memory addressability will be a terabyte or more.

Joe Bentivegna, VP of video development and operations at Avid Technology Inc., a provider of digital content-creation tools and solutions, says 4 Gbytes of memory addressability hasn't been adequate to create the 3-D graphics capabilities customers demand. "The ability to move large models into memory will change the way users interface and interact," Bentivegna says. "We'll be able to deliver more complex composites and improve rendering times."

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