Birth of a new generation


What is 64-bit computing? A 64-bit processor has a word size of 64 bits, a requirement for advanced scientific and business applications. It handles twice as many bits of information in the same clock cycle as a 32-bit processor.

What are Opteron and Itanium 2? They are 64-bit processors developed recently by AMD and Intel, respectively. While both are 64-bit, they have significantly different architectures. Both will perform most high-end computing tasks well and are looked upon by the industry as cost-effective replacements for 64-bit RISC processors.

Which is best for my requirements? That depends. A careful analysis of your current and anticipated computing tasks is required before you decide which route to take. Take a look at how leading server manufacturers are positioning their product lines behind the two options before settling on one or the other.

Must-know info? 64-bit computing is the big thing at least for the next decade. The processors are being moved into desktop and workstation devices as well as servers. Operating system and applications developers are writing code for 64-bit computing. AMD and Intel have well-developed road maps for Opteron and Itanium 2, at least for the next five years.

SGI's Altix 350 family of servers comes in configurations of one to 16 Itanium 2 processors, adding scalability to Linux clusters. It's priced at $21,599 and up for a four-processor unit.

64-bit processors will shape computing power for the next five years

The 64-bit processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc. could alter the landscape of high-performance computing.

The design advancements in AMD's 32/64-bit Opteron and Intel's 64-bit Itanium are the latest example of Moore's Law, which holds that computer chips will double in density, and thus capability, every 18 to 24 months.

AMD of Sunnyvale, Calif., introduced its Opteron processor in spring 2003 as an implementation of the x86 instruction set with a 64-bit memory space. All versions of the Opteron let you run 32- and 64-bit applications and operating systems simultaneously without sacrificing performance.

HyperTransport Technology, an AMD design feature, provides a scalable bandwidth interconnect between processors, I/O subsystems and other chipsets. Support of up to three coherent HyperTransport links can provide up to 19.2 gigabytes per second of bandwidth per processor in the Opteron 800 series models.

The Opteron's integrated double-data-rate dynamic RAM memory controller, also a new feature, improves the way main memory is accessed, resulting in more bandwidth, reduced memory latencies and increased processor performance.

Other features of the Opteron include 64-bit wide data and address paths that incorporate a 48-bit virtual address space and a 40-bit physical address space. The architecture is built around 0.13-micron silicon-on-insulator technology that allows for lower thermal output. They run cooler than most 64-bit processors.

All Opteron processors are identified with a three-digit model number: 100 series, 200 series and 800 series. The first number identifies the series itself. Processors in the 100 series are designed for one-way servers and workstations. Those in the 200 series are designed for two-way servers and workstations. And 800 series processors are designed for up to eight-way servers and workstations.

The second two digits of the model number indicate processor speed. For example, Models 140, 240 and 840 all run at 1.4 GHz. Models numbers that end in 42 run at 1.6 GHz; that end in 44 run at 1.8GHz; that end in 46 at 2.0, and that end in 48 run at 2.2 GHz.

The Opteron series also has two low-power options, the EE and HE. The EE allows for embedded controllers found in networking, storage environments and telecommunications. The HE enables dense designs and can meet user needs for lower power consumption.

For more specific information about the Opteron, check out AMD's Web site at

The first release of the Intel Itanium processor in May 2001 was far from a stunning commercial success. While it performed well at scientific tasks such as simulation, it did relatively poor in running enterprise business software. According to market researcher International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., fewer than 500 Itanium servers were shipped in the United States, and 2,700 worldwide that year.

In 2002, Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel released the Itanium 2. Unlike the Opteron, this version represents a brand-new 64-bit architecture rather than an extension of the x86 32-bit design.

The first Itanium 2 had a 400-MHz bus, which is 12 bits wide ? compared with the 8-bit width on the original Itanium ? for faster data transfer rates. Its 3M integrated Level 3 cache enabled high processing rates for online transaction processing, data analysis, simulation and rendering.

Intel said the processor also had advanced reliability features, such as extensive error-correcting code throughout the processor's data structure.

Last summer, Intel released several new versions of the Itanium 2 targeted at overlapping but somewhat different performance goals. They are all designed around the Intel-Hewlett-Packard Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (EPIC) technology. They all feature a 400-MHz bus that is 128 bits wide with 6.4-Gbps of bandwidth, and combine with the Intel E8870 chipset or OEM custom chipsets.

The Itanium 2 with 6M of Level 3 cache is socket-compatible and binary-compatible with existing Itanium-based software.

Versions of this chip operate at 1.5 GHz, 1.4 GHz and 1.3 Hz, with Layer 3 caches of 6M, 4M and 3M, respectively. Intel has targeted this processor series at users requiring new levels of parallelism, scalability and reliability for databases, enterprise resource planning, business intelligence and other high-performance applications.

Intel also has a 1.4-GHz Itanium 2 with 1.5M of Level 3 cache for dual-processor servers and workstations. The processor is optimized for technical computing platforms and clusters, and high-performance network edge, security and software engineering purposes.

For low-power situations, the company has the Low-Voltage Intel Itanium 2 processor, also designed for dual-processor systems. This 1.0-GHz processor with a 1.5M of Level 3 cache requires only 62 watts for high-density projects requiring lower power.

For more specific information about the Itanium 2, check out the Intel Web site at

The chart features Opteron and Itanium 2 servers made by major server vendors as well as second-tier, or white-box, server makers. As the market for them is still developing, similar products will appear in the months ahead.

Bear in mind that a direct comparison of any of the servers is difficult. Some of them are bare-bones systems that include a chassis, motherboard with chipset, power supply and one or more processors; you can add extra hard drives, RAM, processors and storage subsystems as you see fit. Fixed-configuration servers are good to go, and require little or no customization.

Which should you choose?

While all the bidding isn't in yet, to date it appears Intel is aiming directly at very high-end 64-bit applications while AMD is concentrating more on lower-end servers in the transitional market for users wanting to move from 32-bit to 64-bit computing.

Opteron costs less than Itanium 2, and can run 32-bit code directly, so legacy operating systems and applications aren't wasted. Because it is based on the time-tested x86 architecture, applications are generally easier to develop for it than for the Itanium 2. Opteron servers are proving to be excellent performers at good prices, and few users have expressed disappointment with them.

For its part, the Itanium 2 arrives with excellent benchmark scores in almost all categories. Its already large Level 3 cache of 6M will soon be upgraded to 9M and could reach 24M by summer next year. It offers proven scalability.

With the exception of Sun, all of the Big Five server makers ? IBM Corp., HP, Sun Microsystems Inc., Dell Inc. and Fujitsu PC Corp. ? have announced support for the Itanium 2. HP, in fact, has based its entire Integrity server line on the Itanium 2, from the high-end Superdome to both midrange and entry-level systems.

The leading server makers are a bit more cautious about using the Opteron, although all of them with the exception of Dell have announced some Opteron-based products.

Both the Opteron and Itanium 2 are garnering about equal support from leading operating system vendors and applications developers.

J.B. Miles writes from Honomu, Hawaii. E-mail him at

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