Intel Developer Forum - 64-bit x86 has set back Itanium

Intel's decision to begin shipping versions of x86 processors that are capable of 64-bit computing has slowed down the adoption...

Intel's decision to begin shipping versions of x86 processors that are capable of 64-bit computing has slowed down the adoption of the company's high-end Itanium processors.

A senior executive said, at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, "I would be remiss to say that the impact was zero, but I would say that the impact was mainly noise and perhaps confusion."

Abhi Talwalkar, vice-president and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platform Group, said, "I think it has set us back several months."

Though Itanium has not met the aggressive goals Intel set for it, the company's decision to support 64-bit extensions in x86 processors has not affected Itanium's competitiveness against  Risc processors from companies like IBM and Sun Microsystems, Talwalkar said.

He made the case for Itanium's success during his earlier keynote address at IDF. "The growth that we're seeing in large-scale symmetric multiprocessing deployments, which is really where the architecture is being targeted, has been phenomenal," he said.

Application support has exceeded expectations, he added. "We've already surpassed our (2004) goal ... of having 2,000 applications ported, tuned and optimised," Talwalkar said.

After initially expressing reluctance to the idea, Intel last February followed rival Advanced Micro Devices' lead and announced plans to make its 32-bit Xeon and Pentium processors capable of processing data in larger, 64-bit chunks, than they could previously handle, and thus allow them to run 64-bit applications.

Intel had been reluctant to support the 64-bit extension of x86 - a technology that it calls EM64T and AMD calls AMD64 - for fear that it would hamper the adoption of the Itanium processor line, which is also designed for 64-bit applications.

Programs written for 32-bit x86 processors do not perform as well on Itanium as they do on processors that extend the x86 instruction set, and that fact ultimately forced Intel to develop EM64T, analysts say.

Intel began shipping its first EM64T processor, a Xeon chip code-named Nocona, in August.

Though Intel had positioned Itanium as the general-purpose enterprise processing platform of the future, Talwalkar's statements reflected the company's growing realisation that 64-bit versions of x86 are unlikely to be displaced by Itanium, said Gordon Haff, an analyst with industry research firm Illuminata.

"The reality is, to the degree that Itanium had any ambitions for the 64-bit market as a whole, EM64T and Opteron really kind of blew that out of the water," Haff said.

Robert McMillan writes for IDG News Service

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