64-Bit Computing On The Launchpad

Chips from Intel and a new version of Windows set the stage for advances at the application level and on the server platform.

April 4, 2005

7 Min Read
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The long-awaited era of 64-bit computing finally may be here. Intel last week introduced a line of 64-bit Xeon processors for the multiprocessor-server market that sets a new level of computing performance and is expected to launch a wave of software development to take advantage of the greater speed the processors provide.

The Xeon MP processors complete Intel's conversion of its server-processor portfolio to 64-bit capabilities, with the Itanium processor at the high end. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s 64-bit Opteron processors have been available for two years. Intel's Xeon MP and AMD's Opteron provide the foundation for a transition from the x86 standard to a new 64-bit computing market. Intel and the major computer makers are even changing their nomenclature, using "x64" to describe 64-bit chips that run the x86 instruction set. Intel's Itanium chip handles 64 bits at a time but doesn't run x86 instructions natively.

Perhaps even more important than the chip announcement was confirmation from Microsoft last week that its long-awaited Windows Server 2003 64-bit Edition is near completion and that a formal introduction can be expected as soon as next month.

"That's the gun that starts the race," says Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64. Once there's a 64-bit version of Windows Server, "then we'll also start to see all of the utilities and infrastructure applications being moved over to 64 bits."

That's a change eagerly anticipated by Wayne Myers, IT director and network administrator for law firm Hooper, Lundy & Bookman Inc. "Now that Microsoft is on board, we're just waiting for the other software applications to come around," he says. "As all the legal software is ported to 64-bit operation, it will speed up pretty much everything we do across the network." The California firm, which specializes in health-care law, runs Windows on ProLiant servers from Hewlett-Packard for a variety of applications and Microsoft's SQL Server.Myers expects significant performance gains when he tests new HP server systems using the Xeon MP processors running 64-bit-capable software over the next three to six months. "It's like having an eight-cylinder car, then putting a 16-cylinder engine in it," he says. "Just think of the power difference. Our data will process at a faster rate because basically we'll have more 'doors' to get the information through to the processor."

Proponents of 64-bit computing have been anxiously awaiting Microsoft's release of a 64-bit server operating system since AMD introduced its Opteron processor in April 2003 and Intel unveiled plans to extend its Xeon line to include 64-bit operations. Business-technology managers have been able to run 64-bit versions of the Solaris and Linux operating systems on 64-bit chips. But Windows remains dominant, and independent software developers who write Windows apps have been waiting for the Microsoft move before converting their software. Details of the release of Windows Server 2003 64-bit edition will be disclosed at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, scheduled for April 25-27 in Seattle, Andy Lees, corporate VP for Microsoft's server and tools business, said last week.

The move to 64-bit capabilities, when combined with the transition to dual-core processors that's expected to begin around midyear when AMD introduces a dual-core Opteron, will give users enhanced capabilities "without a price penalty for the extra performance," Lees says. Intel expects to deliver dual-core processors early next year.

Intel introduced five versions of its Xeon line for multiprocessor implementations. The devices not only add 64-bit capabilities but also provide improved performance through larger on-chip memory and a new dual, independent front-side bus that's designed to deliver up to 10.6 Gbits of system bandwidth, more than three times that of previous Xeon chips.

Jeff Richardson, VP and general manager of Intel's server platforms group, cautions that a complete transition to 64-bit computing will take time. "Most of the broad-based business applications in the industry right now are 32 bit, and those will slowly start migrating over to 64 bit," he says. "They key is to have 64-bit-enabled systems broadly available so that when the software is available, the end user can take full advantage."Nearly two dozen equipment manufacturers last week revealed server systems based on the Xeon MP processors, ranging from four-way blade servers to rack and pedestal systems. But top-tier server providers are taking very different development strategies around 64-bit Xeon MPs and multiprocessor servers.Dell, which has concentrated on two-processor systems over the past few years, is placing more emphasis on a range of four-processor systems based on the new Intel processors, which it says will let it push four-way servers into the mainstream. Two years ago, Dell stopped offering an eight-processor server. HP last week acknowledged that it, too, will discontinue its eight-processor systems and focus on four-processor systems for high-performance demands in the x64 market.

IBM, which designs its own chipset for the x64 server market, unveiled a four-way system based on the Xeon MP processors. However, IBM plans to introduce an eight-processor x64 system later this year and eventually scale the line to 32 processors.

"The eight-way market is miniscule," says Paul Gottsegen, VP of worldwide enterprise marketing for Dell. "That's been a game-over situation for some time. But with the four-way, we see a one-two punch of a huge performance gain with the increased [on-chip memory] and an attractive architecture for existing database customers who want to transition from a Unix environment."

Colin Lacey, director of platform marketing for industry-standard servers at HP, says the improved performance of the new Intel processors is letting it move features previously available only on eight-way systems into more affordable four-way platforms.

Sun Microsystems entered the x64 market in 2003 with several server platforms, including a four-way system based on Opteron processors. Systems with more than four processors continue to be built with Sun's proprietary Sparc architecture processors.Jonathan Schwartz, president and chief operating officer of Sun, says the company's x64 system shipments have grown by more than 100% in the past year, but he declined to provide any specific numbers.

The platform positioning by the equipment vendors isn't surprising and plays to their strengths, analyst Brookwood says. One- and two-processor systems make up as much as 90% of the unit shipments of servers. IBM has the heritage and skills to continue to develop systems for the high-end--and generally higher-margin--server market, he says, while Dell's traditional strength is in lower-end, high-volume markets. HP has the technological expertise to design high-end systems but is focusing its efforts in that segment on systems utilizing Intel's Itanium processor, he says.

The Itanium processor is responsible for Intel's delayed entry into the x64 market, Brookwood says. Intel first planned to target Itanium, which doesn't natively run legacy x86 code, for use in all servers with two or more processors, he says, but changed its plan when AMD unveiled the 64-bit x86-based Opteron.

Intel's new chips will help spur development of new 64-bit software, says Ben Williams, VP of AMD's commercial and server workstation business. But he says he's not worried about the competition because the new Xeon is too expensive, too complex, and too hot when compared with Opteron. "They're trying to hit price points we hit two years ago, and you'll notice they didn't talk about power at all, which tells you they're going the wrong way from a power standpoint," he says.

Customers will need to experiment to determine which chip works for a specific implementation, Brookwood says. Applications that benefit more from larger on-chip memory may find the new Xeon chips, with as much as 8 Mbytes of Level 3 cache, to be a superior choice. Those looking for a lower memory latency may find better performance from systems using AMD's chips with a smaller on-chip memory cache but utilizing a faster direct connect architecture. Says Brookwood, "There are applications that are more sensitive to one or another parameter, and you need to do your homework to figure out which is better for you."0

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