And they’re off.

With Intel officially allowing its hardware and software partners to go public with its Itanium plans Tuesday, the race for 64-bit supremacy has begun.

Intel Corp. said it expects approximately 25 computer manufacturers to offer more than 35 Itanium-based models before than end of 2001.

Hewlett-Packard Co. wasted no time, unveiling a suite of products, services and incentives today based on Intel’s long-awaited, next-generation architecture.

“This is the strategy of a number of (HP) products and activities in the coming months and years,” said Steve Shaw, enterprise systems program manager with Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont.

On the hardware side, HP announced the i2000 workstation, which supports up to two processors; the four-way, rack-mountable rx4610 server; and the beefier 16-way rx9610 server, all sporting Itanium. The workstation and rx4610 support multiple operations systems, including HP’s own RISC-based HP-UX 11i, the two recently announced Microsoft 64-bit versions of Windows and Red Hat Linux.

The rx9610, however, will only run on HP-UX, at least for now, as RISC operating systems already come with binary compatibility features, Shaw said. “It’s a good portfolio of systems to get customers started on 64-bit computing.”

Itanium marks the first generation of Intel’s 64-bit capable chips (officially known, not as 64-bit, but as Itanium processor series, or IPF chips). According to HP, the design lets them carry out more instructions – up to terabytes in data – in less amount of time than its 32-bit predecessors.

Shaw said the initial markets for Itanium will be found among technical computer seeking better performance out of their high-end graphics or engineering applications, as well as organizations sporting large databases, big e-business Web sites and software developers.

In other words, it’s an early adopters’ market, he said, drawing comparisons between the Itanium launch and the arrival of RISC systems in the 1980s. “For a full-scale (64-bit) sweep, it might be a year from now, but even a full-scale sweep is questionable,” Shaw added.

HP expects the price/performance ratio required for mainstream, desktop-style rollouts will improve as Itanium matures.

In addition to the IPF-based systems, HP also unveiled Itanium consulting services, including offering customers help getting started on the new architecture.

And to make the prospect of migration from 32-bit more attractive, HP said it has created a special financing program, in 12 or 18 month packages, which feature “attractive” annual percentage rates. The i2000 workstation is scheduled for general availability on June 11, the rx4610 later in June and the rx9610 in August.

Itanium processors will feature 2 and 4MB of L3 cache and 800 and 733MHz frequency speeds at prices ranging from US$1,177 to US$4,227, according to Intel.

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