Intel Pushes Xeon, 'Prescott' to 64 Bits

SAN FRANCISCO -- Intel's next-generation Xeon processor and future versions of the processors based on the Prescott core will come with 64-bit extensions technology, Intel CEO Craig Barrett has announced.

Joining AMD

Intel joins Advanced Micro Devices in releasing a processor with 64-bit extensions technology, which has attracted the interest of major server vendors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Intel's 64-bit extension technology will be software-compatible with AMD's 64-bit extension technology, Barrett said. A few architectural differences won't affect application compatibility, he added.

The first Intel chip to take advantage of the 64-bit extensions technology will be one code-named Nocona, the next generation of the Xeon DP processors for workstations and low-end servers. Nocona is scheduled for release in the second quarter.

Future versions of both the Prescott processor and the Xeon MP processor will also include this technology. Prescott is the core for existing Pentium 4 CPUs.

Microsoft Windows Server 2003 for 64-bit Extended Systems will support Nocona, said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft chief executive officer, in a videotaped presentation.

Also, Microsoft confirms it is working with both chipmakers to ensure both Intel and AMD CPUs can run the 64-bit extended systems versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, which will also support both 32-bit and 64-bit applications.

Intel's effort to ensure its processors work with Microsoft's existing 64-bit operating system is good news for customer companies, says Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"Intel will be a uniter rather than a divider, and that's very positive news," Brookwood says.

64-Bit Acceleration

Intel has been notoriously reluctant to address the issue of 64-bit extensions technology since AMD announced it would release such a product. Intel executives and technical staff members were willing to talk about the subject in theoretical terms, but always hedged their bets on whether the technology would find a market.

With IBM and Sun jumping on board with support for 64-bit extensions in the form of AMD's Opteron server processor, and Hewlett-Packard signaling its interest in 64-bit extensions technology, Intel had to put the technology on its public road map, says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata.

"This was inevitable. The world is going to move to 64-bit, and the market has indicated there is a groundswell of interest for low-end servers and workstations with this technology," Haff says.

Intel's announcement brings the power of 64-bit computing to both servers and desktops, although the benefit of 64 bits for PCs isn't clear yet, analyst Brookwood notes.

"On the desktop, it's not obvious what they can do with the 64 bits yet other than gaming," Brookwood says. Putting 64 bits on the desktop also raises the challenge of device drivers, he adds. "On the server side, device drivers are a more manageable issue, but on the desktop there are just so many hardware variations it becomes a much bigger deal," he says.

Itanium's Role

Some of Intel's reluctance to discuss extensions technology was born of the Itanium project, which Intel at one point envisioned taking over the server market, Haff says.

Itanium is a 64-bit processor that uses a completely different instruction set from the x86 processors such as Opteron and Nocona. Intel markets the chip as a replacement for reduced instruction set computing (RISC) processors from companies like Sun and IBM, and has some compelling performance data to back up their claims.

But corporations have not flocked to Itanium servers, in part because any 32-bit applications must be rewritten for the new instruction set in order to take advantage of Itanium's performance.

Itanium does run 32-bit applications in a software compatibility mode, but the 32-bit performance of those applications is hard to swallow when compared to the 32-bit performance of Xeon and Opteron and the Itanium's high price tag.

Both technologies have a future, according to Intel and analysts. As more applications are developed for Itanium, more companies will take advantage of its performance, Barrett said. The Nocona processor will allow companies to develop 64-bit applications while maintaining their existing base of 32-bit applications, he added.

Details To Come

Intel will divulge more details about the future of both Itanium and Intel's 64-bit extensions technology in a Wednesday keynote by Mike Fister, Intel senior vice president and general manager.

Barrett also showcased several other future technologies coming down the road from Intel.

The company demonstrated wireless USB technology using a digital video recorder and a PC, and its Florence laptop reference design. Florence is designed to allow notebook users to take advantage of an external screen for data and the gamut of wireless technologies, including General Packet Radio Services and Bluetooth.

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