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Intel downbeat about 64-bit extensions

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Intel couldn't have tried any harder if it wanted to give the impression that its launch of 64-bit extensions for the 32-bit Xeon this week was something it had been forced to do in the face of indifference bordering on hostility to its Itanium project...

At the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco this week, Intel had senior executives from key OEMs on stage to endorse its revamped server chip strategy. You could almost hear Intel's corporate arm clicking back into place as the execs from Dell, IBM and HP finally stopped twisting it.

The vendor clearly had the technology up its sleeve all along - enterprise systems general manager Mike Fister has been making cryptic references to its bag of tricks for the last year or two. Even CEO Craig Barrett admitted the technology's existence has surely been one of the worst-kept secrets in Silicon Valley.

A climb-down for Intel

But many in the industry will see this as a climb-down for Intel. The vendor has insisted for three years that two totally separate platforms requiring different software bases was the most sensible way to ease the market from 32-bit computing to a 64-bit future.

Intel didn't help matters by the incredibly downbeat way it finally confessed to the existence of the 64-bit extensions this week. In Craig Barrett's opening keynote, the imminent launch of the extensions was just one bullet point in a long series, and the most enthusiasm came from a corporate video from Microsoft's Steve Ballmer.

Mike Fister's own keynote was equally short on pyrotechnics, with 64-bit extensions pitched as just one of a list of technologies the vendor is adding to the Xeon line.It's hard not to see that, for the foreseeable future, it is the hybrid 32-bit/64-bit option that will be grabbing most vendors' attention when it comes to pushing servers and workstations. One OEM we spoke to said that with the addition of 64-bit support to Xeon, Itanium was in its view effectively a niche product.

Itanium hopes remain

But while Intel may appear to have caved in on supporting a hybrid 32-bit/64-bit model, albeit grudgingly, it would be wrong to assume that Intel has completely given up on the Itanium as the future of 64-bit computing.

Intel itself spoke of Itanium 2 delivering specific capabilities that some, but clearly not all, customers will covet. Its floating point performance will continue to differentiate it against its now hyped-up little brother.

In his keynote, Fister reeled off a list of technologies that will underscore Itanium's reliability and security in the future. Speaking on the sidelines, Intel execs said these technologies could be transferred to Xeon, but this was highly unlikely.

Perhaps the big imponderable is what the whole episode really tells us about Intel. Is this a company that really does pay attention to what its customers, both OEMs and end users, want, and is prepared to swallow its pride so it can swallow their IT spend? Or does it demonstrate that even when Intel redraws its roadmap, the destination is still the same?

Source: ComputerWire/Datamonitor

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