AMD welcomes Intel to the x86-64 party

As expected, Intel Corp. announced Tuesday it will extend the x86 instruction set to 64-bits during the Spring Intel Developer Forum. The company that brought the technology to the market first is delighted.

Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (AMD's) Opteron processor was the first chip to offer users the possibility of running their 32-bit x86 applications on a server that could also run 64-bit applications as those users migrated to the technology. For a long time, Intel downplayed the need for that technology, but its decision to release a product at this time is a significant validation for AMD's approach, said AMD and industry analysts Tuesday.

"This adds credibility to what we've been doing," said John Morris, a marketing manager at AMD. "We've shown with our partners that there is a legitimacy around where AMD is going," he said.

Because Intel is now on board, AMD will likely see faster development of applications for the technology, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64 in Saratoga, California.

Server customers will also benefit from the removal of any confusion about plans for 64-bit technology, Brookwood said. "Customers will have the opportunity to run their applications or benchmarks on both platforms and decide based on the merits of the platforms," rather than trying to filter the marketing rhetoric from both sides, he said.

AMD has received praise for the 32-bit performance of Opteron, but the industry will have to wait and see if that stands up against the enhancements Intel is making to Nocona, the next generation of its Xeon processor. Nocona will be Intel's first chip to come with 64-bit extensions and will also feature improvements such as support for fast DDR2 (Double Data Rate) memory and the PCI Express interconnect standard.

Both AMD and Intel are extending the 32-bit instruction set by adding larger registers to Opteron and Nocona, among other things, said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, New Hampshire. Registers are temporary holding places for data as it flows through a processor.

A number of the registers are specified as general-purpose, but each company has some leeway to add registers that favor certain types of applications, such as multimedia, Haff said. This means each chip will likely outperform its rival on some tasks, but not others, he said.

The architectural differences will allow AMD to differentiate Opteron from Nocona, Morris said. Intel has greater marketing and manufacturing resources than AMD, but if AMD can communicate the differences between the two chips it can avoid the Intel steamroller, he said.

The first company to develop a technology is not always the one that wins out in the end, as the gravestones of many dot-com companies attest. But AMD would not have been able to mount a credible threat to Intel in the server market unless it was first to market with 64-bit extensions, Brookwood said.

"If they hadn't been first, they wouldn't have even gotten into the market," Brookwood said. It would have been much harder for AMD to change its image from a PC enthusiast supplier to an enterprise vendor if it was following Intel's path rather than selling something new, he said.

Intel and its server partners are expected to provide more details Wednesday on how they will roll out the Nocona chip in the second quarter during keynotes and briefings at the show.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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