Should you be including hybrid 64-bit servers in your IT strategy?

A raft of new hardware is starting to appear that promises 64-bit computing on a 32-bit PC platform, but analysts have warned...

A raft of new hardware is starting to appear that promises 64-bit computing on a 32-bit PC platform, but analysts have warned users that there may be few benefits in developing a strategy based around it.

Pioneered by AMD in its AMD64 processor core, 64-bit extension technology offers users a way to run 32-bit applications and take advantage of some of the technology available on 64-bit processors.

Hewlett-Packard, which has deployed Intel-powered servers in many UK businesses and co-developed Intel's Itanium 64-bit processor, is offering a family of servers based on the hybrid AMD chip. With the launch, HP joins IBM and Sun in offering AMD-powered servers that support 64-bit extensions.

Intel set out its hybrid processor plans in February at the Intel Developers' Forum, announcing a future development of its 32-bit Xeon processor that will offer 64-bit extensions. To tie in with Intel's strategy, HP unveiled a roadmap to incorporate both Intel and AMD 64-bit extensions technology in future additions to its Proliant PC server family.

However, in the short-term, there does not appear to be much value in purchasing servers equipped with either AMD or future Intel 64-bit extension technology. Martin Reynolds, research director at Gartner, said, "The 64-bit extensions are of limited value today."

One possible outcome of AMD being adopted by leading server manufacturers is cheaper hardware. Xeon servers are generally more expensive.

Reynolds said AMD had the advantage in terms of overall price/performance of two-way and four-way Opteron servers running 32-bit applications. But he added that it was unlikely that Intel would cut its processor prices. "AMD will continue to under-price Intel. Intel will not drop prices to meet AMD because AMD cannot ship enough units to force Intel to cut prices," he said.

Martin Hingley, vice-president of the European Systems Group at IDC, said that, without significant price cuts, users would not see the value in the hybrid 64-bit technology. "Users don't really know what 64-bit is," he said.

Another factor users need to consider is how the main operating systems will support the different chips. Hingley questioned whether Microsoft would want to worry about how its software would work on all the variations of processor and chipsets. "This issue really could affect performance and customer experience," he said.

However, Hingley warned that users were facing the prospect of running out of memory on their 32-bit systems as new applications required increasing amounts of memory. "Eventually everything will be 64-bit," he said.

As Intel begins producing Xeon processors with 64-bit extensions in the next few months, users will have to decide whether to stick with their 32-bit platform or move to a hybrid system.

With HP and IBM planning to support both Xeon and AMD's extension technology in their PC server families, those users who decide to implement hybrid systems face confusion over which architecture to use.

By supporting both 32-bit and 64-bit platforms in their server products, the PC manufacturers have not made the choice easy. HP, for instance, has outlined a PC server roadmap, in which it will sell 32/64-bit servers using both AMD and Intel processors.

At the launch of its newly-equipped server line, HP said AMD 800 Series processors on its Proliant 500 servers would be targeted at "high-bandwidth/ low-latency applications" and mid-tier databases. In the same server line, machines equipped with Intel's existing MP Xeon processors, are said to target "server consolidation" and Microsoft Exchange applications.

However, until Intel ships its Xeon processors equipped with 64-bit extensions in the second half of this year, it is not clear whether AMD-powered machines will be significantly cheaper. Nor can users assess which type of processor will give the best performance for their applications.

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