Vendors jump to support 64-bit extensions

Fresh off Intel Corp.'s announcement that it would release a Xeon processor with 64-bit extensions technology in the second quarter, three of the four major server vendors pledged their support for the chip Wednesday.

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Dell Inc., and IBM Corp. all joined Intel Senior Vice President and General Manager Mike Fister on stage at the Spring Intel Developer Forum Wednesday to announce they would release systems based on the Nocona Xeon processor when Intel makes it available. For HP and Dell, the processor will be their first with 64-bit extensions to the x86 instruction set, while IBM will now sell servers based on Nocona and Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD) Opteron chip.

Intel and its partners all said Wednesday that they had been working on products with this technology for a long time, and Tuesday's announcement is the culmination of that work. But AMD's Opteron has been out for nearly a year, and HP and Dell have thus far passed on the chip.

Dell has backed the idea of 64-bit extensions for more than a year, but waited to introduce a product because it didn't think Opteron has seen enough demand outside of the high-performance market, said Neil Hand, director of worldwide marketing for Dell's enterprise systems group.

"Our ability to bring the right products out at the right time has been proven time after time, our ability to forecast when that technology is ready," Hand said.

HP's situation is a little more complicated by the fact that it already has a 64-bit strategy with the Itanium processor. But Itanium and Opteron are aimed at two very different markets, and HP has seen a lot of interest in 64-bit extensions technology, said Donald Jenkins, vice president of marketing for business critical servers at HP.

"Customers have a good idea of where they need Itanium and where they need (extensions technology), and they'll vote with their feet," Jenkins said. Extensions technology is an incremental step on the road to 64 bits, and as workloads grow more complicated over the next decade, users will need the more compelling performance offered by Itanium, he said.

The only company that has jumped on board with both Intel and AMD is IBM. Years of experience with a broad product portfolio has prepared IBM to sell similar products to its customers, said Alex Yost, director of product marketing for IBM's xSeries servers. For example, the company sells high-end servers based on Itanium and its own Power4+ chip, he said.

Customers that run certain types of applications will have a better experience with Opteron, while Nocona might be more applicable for a different type of customer, Yost said. In the end, the decision to sell both products benefits end users who now can compare the two products side by side and make the best decision for their needs, he said.

The competitive position between both the server vendors and chip vendors will probably come down to performance, said Charles King, research director at The Sageza Group Inc. in Mountain View, California. Opteron's performance figures have delighted its partners and customers, and while Intel will probably put out a competitive product, customers simply don't know right now where Intel's chip will stand, he said.

Most of the vendors will probably position the Intel chip as a product for high-performance computing or a limited number of business applications, King said. This is in contrast to what Sun Microsystems Inc. plans to do with Opteron, which will become the linchpin of its strategy to sell more low-end servers into the business market.

Sun believes that business customers are ready for 64-bit extensions technology this year, and that's why it is coming to market with a broad set of products, said Mark Richardson, a Sun spokesman. He declined to comment on whether Sun would update its Xeon servers with the new Nocona processors.

In a market as new as 64-bit extensions technology, all the careful positioning of the vendors might fall by the side of the road once customers discover what they can do with the technology, King said.

"Every vendor's been bitten by customers who refuse to do with their server equipment what the server vendor wants them to do," he said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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