Hewlett-Packard, with its close involvement in the development of the Itanium chip, is likely to be a leader in 64-bit computing.
Unix server category manager for HP's systems operations division in Europe Thomas Ullna claimed that the company's new rp8400 Unix server offered users an upgrade path to Itanium.
During 2002 the company plans to introduce virtual partitioning technology from its high-end SuperDome family into the rp8400. "Users will be able to switch between hard discs, processors and memory," Ullna explained.
The impact on data centres of the future could be profound. In HP's grand vision, data centres using Itanium-based systems would provide processing, storage and memory on demand for any Itanium application - irrespective of whether it is a Unix, Windows or Linux application.
The goal is to make best use of expensive data centre resources. "Today servers in a data centre only achieve 40% utilisation," said Ullna. However, the extra capacity is needed to cope with peaks in demand. The implication is that companies effectively lose 60% of their investment.
According to Ullna: "If you can achieve even 50% utilisation that is 25% better usage than today."
He said the processor instruction set within Itanium was a superset of HP's own PA-Risc instruction set as used within its HP-UX Unix operating systems and all HP-UX applications like Oracle and SAP.
Existing HP-UX applications would be able to run unchanged within an Itanium-based data centre and would be able to run on any Itanium hardware within the data centre to make the best use of free computing resources.
For many organisations, the real performance boost will come with applications that are specifically developed for Itanium. The new Intel processor offers developers a radical approach to optimising software. In previous generations of Intel processor, the chip itself was responsible for streamlining the speed of software.
Itanium provides an architecture called Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing (Epic), which allows software developers to take over responsibility for optimising application software. Linux, HP-UX and Windows have all been optimised to run on the new 64-bit Itanium server.
The new chip is also likely to have a dramatic impact on the cost of high performance 32-bit hardware. Gary Barnett, senior analyst at Ovum observed: "Itanium will change the economics of PC purchasing by giving users better price-performance."
Barnett said the trickle-down effect on pricing would mean that high performance 32-bit systems will become extremely competitively priced. However, he urged caution on businesses that are looking to adopt Itanium systems now. "It will take time before software that specifically takes advantage of 64-bit computing becomes available on the Itanium," said Barnett.
Another factor that could affect 64-bit deployment is the extent to which 32-bit systems are able to deliver data centre performance today. Industry observers point to the vast amount of memory that 64-bit Itanium systems will support compared to the current 4Gbyte limit on 32-bit Pentium systems.
However Stephen Brobat, chief technology officer at NCR TeraData, said that some of the company's users were running 500Gbyte data warehouses on existing 32-bit architectures. The TeraData architecture splits up data warehouse processing so that clusters of four-way 32-bit servers can work on chunks of data. According to Brobat: "Even on 32-bit systems we do not [overload memory] on a single node".