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Intel unveils 64-bit capable Xeon

Emphasis on memory, not number crunching

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IDF 2004 Branding it one of the industry's "worst-kept secrets", Intel CEO Craig Barrett this morning revealed that 'Nocona', the first Xeon CPU fabbed at 90nm, will extend the 32-bit x86 ISA to 64-bit addressing.

Barrett gave away little in the way of specifics: no codenames, no brand names, no speeds, no feeds, no word on AMD64 compatibility. We expect the details will be filled in tomorrow during the enterprise keynote here at IDF - today's speech is something of a scene-setter for all the remaining keynotes. But whatever the technology's finer points, it's clear that the technology has been designed not to intrude on Itanium's territory.

Indeed, Barrett preceded his 'revelation' with a strong pitch for Itanium, making clear the line between that 64-bit processor's 'big iron' role in computationally intense applications, and Nocona's goal of simply providing the chip with access to more memory.

Intel describes Nocona's 64-bit facility as "memory extension technology". In short, it's about accessing more than 4GB of RAM, rather than crunching bigger numbers - that's Itanium's job.

Some might argue that that still dooms Itanic, but Intel wheeled out spokesfolks from finance house Morgan Stanley to talk about their ongoing commitment to Itanium, for high-level number crunching. It wants us all to know that just because it's coming out with a Xeon that can do 64-bit addressing, big business is still going to need Itanium and - crucially - is sticking with it.

"We're going to be deploying a significant amount of Itanium this year for both derivatives processing and database," said Morgan Stanley's head of global enterprise computing, Jeff Burnbaum. He also claimed that Itanium had beaten Xeon in many of the tests the company had performed, though he didn't explicitly say that the company had pitched 64-bit compatible Xeons against Itanium.

We've noted before that a 64-bit Xeon brings Intel's two server-oriented processor lines closer together, but not necessarily into each other's space. That's not to say that some Itanium design wins won't be lost to Nocona, but if customers end up buying Intel rather than AMD, that's still good news for Barrett and co.

"We're trying to span the range of compute solutions," he said, "from the very high end enterprise down into the smaller sever and workstation areas."

Nocona will ship next quarter, Barrett said, followed by a mid-year release of a Prescott-based Xeon for single-processor workstations with the same 64-bit addressing extensions - admission, effectively, that the technology is indeed in today's 90nm Pentium 4s, but disabled. They will come to multi-way Xeons with 'Potomac' early next year.

Microsoft's Steve Ballmer announced that the company was today shipping the latest beta build of Windows with support for the Xeon processor's 64-bit addressing extensions.

Barrett indicated that the release of the Xeon processor was aligned to the availability of a version of Windows that supported the new technology, suggesting that the final release of 64-bit Windows XP and Server 2003 isn't that far off, which will be good news for AMD, which has been waiting patiently for the code to be completed. Yes, Linux will run on Athlon 64 and Opteron-based systems, but for many of the users the desktop AMD64 chips is aimed at, Windows support is essential if they're to do anything beyond faster 32-bit processing. ®

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