Microsoft backs Itanium 2 but questions remain over 64-bit computing

Microsoft has thrown its weight behind the launch today (Monday) of Intel's 64-bit Itanium 2 processor with the promise that the...

Microsoft has thrown its weight behind the launch today (Monday) of Intel's 64-bit Itanium 2 processor with the promise that the next edition of its Windows server software will support the platform.

The new processor is seen by many as the first true 64-bit server processor from the chip giant, and support from Microsoft in the forthcoming Windows .net server operating system is essential for 64-bit PC computing to take off.

Brian Valentine, Windows division senior vice-president at Microsoft, said, "We think that eventually all PC system that ships in the world will be 64-bit platforms."

The issue for Microsoft is the speed at which 64-bit device drivers can be developed, as 32-bit software is not supported on a 64-bit Itanium 2 system. Such software drivers are essential for the operating system to work in a 64-bit system.

While Windows .net will support the new Itanium 2 processor Valentine hinted at further 64-bit developments. "As we develop the next version of Windows, after, we'll support other 64-bit hardware."

He said the forthcoming AMD Opteron chip was an interesting architecture. The processor can run in both 32-bit and 64-bit modes, which could accelerate the take-up of 64-bit PC computing.

This, said Valentine could pave the way to the roll-out of PC systems capable of running either as a 64-bit or a 32-bit system, which would overcome the backwards compatibility issues with the Itanium family and remove the need for 64-bit device drivers.

By offering an alternative to Unix systems in the data centre, 64-bit computing promises to improve the performance of the PC architecture. Although Microsoft has not given any indication of pricing, Valentine said, "It's not our intention to increase pricing as platform architectures change." If 64-bit Windows was high volume we'd be able to sell it today for $199, he added.

There is some dispute about whether users actually need 64-bit processing on an Intel-based PC system. Last week Dell revealed that it would not be selling Itanium 2 servers for the foreseeable future.

"End users won't be that interested until there are applications that can demonstrate real business benefit from the 64-bit platform," said Tony Lock, senior analyst at Bloor Research.

Lock said Microsoft positioned the previous 64-bit Windows more as an operating system that users could start looking at, rather than as production systems.

"One day, 64-bit Intel servers will be mainstream," he said, adding that the move would be evolutionary. "If users need 64-bit computing today they can move to Unix," he said.

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