AMD Hammers its way into 64-bit computing

Tuesday marks a landmark move for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.(AMD) as it officially launches its 64-bit microprocessor, Opteron.

Formerly code-named Hammer, the processor is designed to support the x86-64 instruction set, but is

able to deliver for both 32-bit and 64-bit code, offering backwards compatibility. AMD is touting the fact that this allows for IT managers to move to 64-bit applications while continuing to leverage their investment in 32-bit software. This bridging ability will be a key differentiator in AMD’s stand against processor giant Intel Corp., according to several industry analysts.

Mike Feibus, TechKnowledge Strategies Inc.‘s principal analyst in Scottsdale, Ariz., said that he sees AMD taking a “”Trojan Horse approach”” to 64-bit computing.

“”A significant portion of early system designs end up running primarily as 32-bit machines — the 64-bit market is still pretty small — but it will get interesting in a couple of years when there are hundreds of thousands of Opterons out there all running as 64-bit machines,”” he said. “”Will Intel be able to claim that kind of number? It will be interesting to see.””

Opteron’s main competition at the outset will be Intel’s 32-bit Xeon processor. This is intentional, said Boston-based Vlad Rozanovich, AMD’s business development executive for the NorthEast, Eastern Canada and the New York City financial district.

“”The (Opteron) processor itself will be priced comparatively to the 32-bit Xeon — we’re taking an investment protection strategy,”” he said. “”We’re offering the best performing 32-bit processor available as well as 64-bit capabilities for free. The competition is just not offering that to the market.””

It’s a good approach, according to Dean McCarron, president of Mercury Research in Cave Creek, Ariz.

“”The 32-bit market is significantly larger than the pure 64-bit market, and attacking the larger market while offering the additional benefit of the 64-bit capabilities makes a lot of sense,”” he said.

Gordon Haff, a senior analyst and IT advisor at analyst firm Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, NH, said that he sees the AMD offering as something that will be very attractive for those organizations not yet in the 64-bit space.

“”Having an architecture that lets migration happen easily is certainly a plus, and there’s the fact that people will like knowing that the capability is there at a 32-bit price point even if they never end up using it,”” Haff said.

On the software side, both Microsoft Corp. and the Linux community have made commitments to the technology, and IBM Corp. has recently announced a DB2 software database package which can be ported to 64-bit that supports Opteron.

“”They’ve been doing a good job so far with software,”” Haff said. “”Over time it’s going to be important to get software out there to make the best use of the processor, but it’s not as critical that it all be available from day one to the same degree as it was for the Itanium processor family that doesn’t run existing applications well at all.””

While AMD has had some success gaining a foothold in the Canadian educational, federal government and small-medium business sectors with desktops and notebooks, it is now eyeing the Toronto-based financial market as well as the Ontario manufacturing industry. The challenge of entering the enterprise lies in making ties with tier one OEMs, Rozanovich said.

“”There has been some hesitancy among global 500 companies in Canada with using regional system builders. We’re hoping that soon after the launch this we’ll be better able to penetrate further into the enterprise within Canada and beyond,”” Rozanovich said.

There has been much speculation about which tier one OEMs will take the stage with AMD in New York for the launch, but analysts are guessing that Sun Microsystems, Dell Computer Corp., and IBM Corp. could be among them.

According to Rozanovich, over 30 system builders and manufacturers will be offering their support for Opteron at Tuesday’s launch, noting that some are Canadian-based companies.

Feibus said that the support of at least one big-name vendor will be what it takes for Opteron to succeed in the enterprise. They need to get that first domino to fall, he said. If they’re relegated to the second tier white box market, it will be a longer road for them.

“”They’ve done a lot of things right, not just for single processor systems, but for multiprocessor environments. It’s easy to hook up two, four or even eight processors and it’s economical compared to what Intel is selling in those segments. They do bring something to the party, but as AMD has found out before in the enterprise, offering a compelling price-performance solution is not the be all and end all,”” Feibus said.

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