Microsoft + AMD: the 64-bit question

Stealing ground

Microsoft's launch of Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2000 for Itanium, and AMD's launch of its 64-bit Opteron processor, should encourage the uptake of 64-bit computing. Software development and support will be crucial in taking 64-bit hardware from its educational and scientific environments through to general purpose corporate computing.

Given the attention lavished on Intel's development of the 64-bit Itanium processor, it is ironic that two recent announcements that will do much to bring 64-bit computing to general purpose enterprise computing environments have come from software developer Microsoft and Intel competitor AMD.

It is also ironic, given the focus on 64-bit computing as a processor development, that both announcements are significant chiefly for their attention to the role that software has to play in encouraging processor adoption.

Microsoft's software role is obvious: it has launched Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2000 for Itanium. Yet AMD's 64-bit Opteron processor could also have a major impact on the uptake of 64-bit computing due to its focus on the importance of existing applications.

AMD's Opteron has been developed specifically to run both existing 32-bit and future 64-bit applications unlike Intel's Itanium, in which 32-bit support is underpowered and has in the past been overlooked. AMD's future-proofing, combined with expected performance improvements and a typically low price, could help AMD to steal some ground on its processor rival.

Intel seems so concerned about the potential impact of Opteron that it has rethought its support of 32-bit applications. While Intel may have denied that the announcement of the IA-32 Execution Layer for Itanium (designed to boost the performance of 32-bit applications on Itanium by 10%) was a response to Opteron, the fact that it was launched a day after Opteron was surely designed to steal some headlines.

For 64-bit computing to break into general-purpose corporate computing environments, software support will be essential. The delivery of Windows Server 2003 for Itanium (and later for AMD's Opteron) will be critical to this, as will the delivery of 64-bit software from key ISVs such as Oracle and SAP.

In the meantime, end users looking to protect their investment in 32-bit applications while investigating potential 64-bit performance improvements may consider AMD-based rather than Intel-based hardware to be the most appropriate choice.

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