Intel will offer a common hardware platform for 32-bit Xeon and 64-bit Itanium processors within the next three years, the company said.
The development will cut the cost of deploying 64-bit PC server hardware, said Alan Priestley, Intel’s European marketing manager for enterprise servers.
With 64-bit and 32-bit chips costing similar amounts to manufacture, Intel intends to price the processors and their components similarly. The main differentiators between Xeon and Itanium will be the software applications that run on each chip, and specific features such as enhanced management, I/O and memory handling, said Priestley.
Most users and suppliers still favour 32-bit servers based on the Intel Xeon processor. Performance is satisfactory and moving to 64-bit Itanium would mean organisations having to buy and implement their software platforms again.
"In the medium-term, customers have stacks that run well on Xeon, and it makes sense for them to maintain Xeon. We will see the 32-bit platform lasting for a long time," Priestley said.
This view is shared by analyst firm Forrester, which believes hybrid processors such as the Xeon EMT and Opteron will deliver additional application workload performance to existing 32-bit environments.
Over time, this trend will nullify the higher cost of running 64-bit applications on Intel’s two- to four-processor Itanium architecture and will protect users’ investments in existing 32-bit applications by allowing them to run applications on new 64-bit machines, Forrester said.
Mike Thompson, principal research analyst at Butler Group, said a "major blow" to Intel’s 64-bit plans was Microsoft’s decision to limit its operating system support of Itanium to high-end versions of Windows.
Microsoft has produced a beta version of an operating system for technical workstations called Windows XP x64, which runs on 32-bit chips with 64-bit extensions.
"In the workstation space, 64-bit has yet to excite much interest," said Thompson. "The XP Professional x64 OS is far from ready. Microsoft highlights the fact that the new OS should not be used in a production environment.
"More tellingly, it talks about usage scenarios to meet the needs of ‘technical workstation users in areas such as mechanical design and analysis, digital content creation and scientific and high- performance computing applications’."
This does not amount to an endorsement of its use for mainstream applications, Thompson said.
However, a Microsoft spokesman said the firm had already released 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003, XP and SQL Server that support Itanium, and it is developing versions of the .net Framework and SQL Server Yukon for Itanium.
MS users offered 64-bit testing
Microsoft plans to put HP Proliant DL145 and DL585 servers, based on AMD’s 64-bit Opteron processors, into testing centres in North America, Europe and Asia.
This will allow its customers to migrate, test and validate 64-bit applications without migrating from their 32-bit applications, said Microsoft.