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Intel joins the 64-bit world

Intel CEO Craig Barrett confirmed widespread expectations that his company would provide 64-bit extensions for Intel's high-end 32-bit Xeon processors as early as next quarter. Speaking at last week's Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, Barrett called the news "the worst kept secret in San Francisco history."

Intel's chief rival, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), rolled out its own 64-bit processor last year for both servers and desktops, putting some pressure on its larger competitor. Barrett said Intel had been waiting for the "ecosystem" to fully emerge. He said that with 64-bit operating systems available from Microsoft and the Linux community, and other software support coming out this year, that ecosystem was now in place for 64-bit computing in the smaller computing environments of servers and workstations.

"The silicon has to be there, the designs have to be there, the operating systems and the tools have to be there, the compilers and performance tools have to be there, the applications have to be there and the entire ecosystem of customer demand has to be there," Barrett said. "Today, when you introduce new technology, it's very, very important that the whole system is ready for it."

Barrett also seemed to suggest -- though he didn't say it outright -- that Intel's technology might not be perfectly compatible with AMD's offering. "For the most part, [enterprise applications] will run on both systems," he said. "Intel has some [features] unique to Intel, which we will make sure people write, port and tune to."

The technology will first appear in the "Nocona" Xeon processor in the second quarter. A 64-bit extension version of its 90-nanometer processor, code-named "Prescott," is slated for release in the second half of 2004. The "Potomac" multiprocessor Xeon should be available in 2005, Barrett said. Intel will also use the technology in the single-processor "Prescott" chip for workstations, although a release date for that chip has not been set, according to company officials.

Because Intel also makes Itanium, a 64-bit system that is not compatible with the x86 architecture, releasing the extensions puts the semiconductor giant in the odd position of competing with itself. Developers must write separate software and applications for Itanium, and Barrett confirmed that those Itanium apps would not work with the new 64-bit extension x86 processors.

But during a post-keynote Q&A session, Barrett contended that the new 64-bit extension x86 processors would not compete with Itanium. "There are two different spaces for 64-bit extensions," he said "Big iron Itanium is all about reliability, scalability, error correction and other high-end capabilities that none of the 64-bit extension processors can touch. People are thinking about the x86 processors with 64-bit extensions for workstations and small computers. I prefer to think of Itanium and x86 64-bit as two different spaces entirely."

Both Intel and Microsoft will provide support for the 64-bit extensions, noted Barrett. Speaking to the conference via video, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer added that his company was "super excited" about the development. Microsoft has already shipped "the latest build of Windows that includes the extensions that are compatible with Xeon" to nearly 5,000 developers, he said.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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