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Intel’s Xeon Headed for Bigger 64-Bit Stage

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On the heels of its plans to expand 64-bit computing to its Xeon line, Intel is positioning the chipset for a bigger impact on the IT marketplace.

At Intel Developer Forum Tuesday, the chipmaker confirmed Xeon extensions are on the horizon. It also started referring to Itanium as the ‘Big Iron’ replacement, and A-list Linux distributions will get the first look.

The new shift gives enterprises a choice between the server room workhorse Xeon processor or Intel’s EPIC-based architecture Itanium family. Or, as the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip making giant is now referring to it: a replacement for “Big Iron”.

Intel plans to release 64-bit extensions for its x86 processor family (Xeon and Pentium) by the end of the year. Xeon’s Nocona version will get the first crack at the extensions, which Intel commonly refers to as “CT”, or Clackamas Technology, beginning in the second quarter. The 64-bit Pentium extensions for “Prescott” P4s are expected to debut sometime midyear.

This change of heart puts Intel in direct competition with AMD, which has 64-bit server chips in Opteron as well as desktop versions in its Athlon64 processor.

Intel CEO Craig Barrett said overall, software should be able to run on either x86-based architecture.

“The software will run on both systems for the most part. There will be some different things that our chips will have, but we’ll make sure that people can write for it,” Barrett told attendees at Intel’s Developer Forum here.

AMD countered Intel’s “worst kept secret in San Francisco” with news that it will release low-power Opteron processors HE (55 watt) and EE (30 watt) for servers and workstations, sometime in March.

To that end, Intel is ready to push the extensions to operating system manufactures. Intel spokesperson Mike Green said while the exact timing would depend on the individual companies, but Intel is expected to release 64-bit compilers for Xeon for the Linux distributions first.

“We’re expecting to see versions for SUSE Linux, Red Hat, MonteVista Linux in the next few months, with Microsoft’s edition coming later this fall,” Green told

In a taped message, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer reassured developers that all was well at the Redmond, Wash.-based giant. He reiterated that 64-bit trial versions of Windows XP and Windows Server operating system are currently available.

“Get ready for Windows on 64-bit,” Ballmer beamed.

Intel’s shift to evolve Pentium or Xeon to 64-bit status could suggest that 64-bit computing is more than ready for widespread adoption among enterprise networks — and more ready than Intel had previously thought. During the company’s most recent bi-annual Developer’s Forum, company CTO Pat Gelsinger suggested that the need to move to 64-bit was not even necessary until at least until 2006 or 2007. Any move prior to that might be considered premature at best, Gelsinger said at the time, noting that the 32-bit addressing limit of 4 GB seems to be doing just fine in the marketplace.

And while the shift to 64-bit processors is not impossible for Intel, it raises the question of whether the move could hurt the company’s Itanium chip family with improvements to its upcoming 64-bit Xeon.

“It’s interesting that Intel is positioning Itanium as a replacement for ‘Big Iron’ and putting Xeon in its high-performance computing solution,” IDC analyst Jean Bozman analyst told “If I’m HP, I would be worried. HP-UX and OpenView can only run on Itanium.”

The Xeon development comes as sales of EPIC-architecture Itanium continue to sputter along. In November, Intel said it sold more than 100,000 Itanium processors in 2003 with major system installations on track at many Fortune 500 companies.

Overall, Xeon and Itanium will also be getting additional technology improvements. Barrett said in addition to its Hyper-Threading, PCI Express, DDR2 memory support, enhanced power management, SSE3 instructions multiple cores, improved runtimes, media, graphics, packet processing and data mining, Xeon and Itanium would address recognition, virtualization through its Vanderpool technology and embedded security with LaGrande.

“The critical thing is that all of those technologies come together with to make them useful to the end user,” Barrett said. “Fundamentally it comes in a controlled fashion in that the silicon has to be there, the compilers have to be there, the operating system has to be there. A couple of years ago, you could throw out a technology and watch how the market absorbs it. Now, when you have a new technology it is important to make sure the market is ready for it.”

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