February 17, 2004 4:00 PM PST

Intel reveals new 64-bit server chip

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SAN FRANCISCO--Intel will come out with a server chip next quarter that adds 64-bit power to its current x86 line of processors, the company's chief executive said Tuesday.

News.context

What's new:
Intel is set to release Nocona, a server chip that adds 64-bit power to its current x86 line of processors.

Bottom line:
The planned move further blurs the distinction between Intel's high-end server processor, the 64-bit Itanium, and the lower-end Xeon systems, forcing Intel to balance development, marketing and business partnership resources between the two families.

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In a keynote speech at the Intel Developer Forum here, CEO Craig Barrett called the arrival of Nocona "one of the worst-kept secrets in San Francisco." Intel had been widely expected to show off such a chip.

Nocona chips for two-processor servers will arrive in the second quarter, Barrett said, followed quickly by Prescott processors with 32/64-bit capability for single-processor servers and workstations. Prescott and Nocona are functionally the same processor but differ in cache size and bus speed. The 32/64-bit technology will then come to chips for servers with four or more processors in 2005, Barrett added.

Technically, the chips are code-named Nocona for dual-processor systems, Prescott for single-processor systems and Potomac for four-processor systems, and the 32/64-bit capability goes by the code name Clackamas Technology.

Although this means that Intel could bring a 32/64-bit chip to PCs soon, Barrett said the company has no plans do so in the near future. There are a few good reasons for this, PC executives and analysts have said for some time. Very little desktop software exists for 64-bit desktops, and the amount of memory that would go into a 64-bit desktop would greatly escalate the price.

While Intel was expected to reveal its 32/64-bit plans at the conference, the chips are set to come out far earlier than most predicted. Most analysts thought that Intel's first 32/64-bit chip would be Tejas, due late in 2004 or early 2005. In December, one analyst, Rick Whittington of American Technology Research, predicted that Intel would release a 32/64-bit chip this year but admitted at the time that he had no solid evidence to back up the theory.

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Craig Barrett, chief executive, Intel
The move further blurs the distinction between Intel's high-end server processor, the 64-bit Itanium, and the lower-end Xeon systems, forcing Intel to balance development, marketing and business partnership resources between the two families. But it also frees Intel to begin a direct attack on rival Advanced Micro Devices, which led the 64-bit x86 market with its Opteron processor.

Neil Hand, director of marketing for the enterprise server group at Dell, said the demand for Xeon servers that can handle large memory loads has been apparent for some time. Although Xeons can directly handle only 4GB of memory, many customers are buying them with 5GB or more of memory and using special tricks to take advantage of the extra memory. It's simply not as efficient as having a 64-bit chip, he said.

Nocona and Itanium, he added, won't compete directly. Itanium is largely reserved for the highest-performing computers. Nocona and other 32/64-bit chips will serve the larger mass market.

Itanium "is not going to necessarily turn into the predominant architecture for servers or workstations over time," he said.

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During his keynote, Barrett demonstrated a 64-bit x86 chip running on a Dell Dimension XPS desktop machine.

The move to add 64-bit extensions to the existing x86 architecture is a long time in coming for Intel. Rival AMD has been taking such an approach for a while, having already shipped both its Opteron server chips and its Athlon 64 desktop processors.

In its response to Intel, AMD pointed to its earlier shipment of a 64-bit x86 chip and to its "AMD64" branding of the technology. "AMD welcomes Intel to the world of AMD64, said Ben Williams, director of server and workstation marketing at AMD.

He said the debate now will shift to other chip features, such as the memory controller built into the chip and the HyperTransport links between the processors. "Opteron is about the ability to go to 64 bit, but it is much more," Williams said.

Difficult to swallow
Intel deserves credit for making sure its 64-approach is compatible with AMD's, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, though "it must have been a hard thing for them to swallow." Intel is accustomed to leading, with AMD cloning technology afterward, he said.

Intel, meanwhile, resisted the 64-bit x86 move, trying to spur the market for its new 64-bit Itanium architecture. Itanium is not directly compatible with today's x86 software, but it can run such programs through a slower emulation mode.

"Their hand was forced," said Anil Vasudeva, an analyst at Imex Research. Still, Vasudeva said the opportunity for chips like Nocona is much larger than that for Itanium.

Intel said it shipped 100,000 Itanium processors in 2003, and "the volume is expected to double this year," Barrett said.

And indicating that Intel isn't cutting back on Itanium development, Barrett also mentioned new features coming to the processor family: power management to better balance performance with electricity consumption and waste heat; PCI Express connections to subsystems such as high-speed networks; and cache reliability to improve the integrity of data stored in special high-speed memory banks.

Although the move may hurt its Itanium strategy, analysts say Intel faces no legal obstacles in adopting AMD's approach.

Intel and AMD entered into an extensive cross-licensing deal in 1995 that largely will insulate Intel from legal liability in this area, according to legal experts.

Among other things, adding 64-bit instructions enables support for more than 4GB of memory.

Most desktop users aren't expected to need that much memory until later in the decade, but it takes years for hardware and software partners to support the 64-bit extensions so that the technology is ready in time when the memory requirement does arrive.

Microsoft will support Intel's new architecture in the second half of 2004, a Microsoft representative said. Versions of the Linux operating system from Red Hat, SuSE Linux and MontaVista Software will support it in the second half, Barrett added.

Novell's SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 9 is scheduled to arrive in July, with support for Intel's 64-bit extensions, SuSE spokesman Joe Eckert said. A beta version is due in March, he added.

And Red Hat, the leading Linux seller, is testing its software now. It plans to ship software supporting Intel's 64-bit Xeon chips in the second quarter after the new processors begin shipping, said Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day.

Intel's approach is compatible with AMD's, the Microsoft representative said. "There will be one operating system that will support all (64 bit) extended systems," the representative said.

Barrett concurred, noting that the design of the chips from the two companies will differ but that software and OSes for this market "probably, for the most part, will run on both systems."

Intel and AMD entered into an extensive cross-licensing deal in 1995 that largely will insulate Intel from legal liability in this area, according to legal experts.

CNET News.com's Ina Fried contributed to this report.

 

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