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AMD nails Microsoft backing for Hammer

The companies are expected to announce that the software maker will offer Windows support for Advanced Micro Devices' new family of processors.

Microsoft may take a swing with Advanced Micro Devices' Hammer.

The companies are expected to announce Wednesday afternoon that Microsoft will offer a version of the Windows operating system that supports AMD's Hammer family of processors.

The chips, which will debut later this year, are an important next step for AMD. Not only will they have the job of carrying forward the company's successes with Athlon, but also they will play a huge role in the chipmaker's plans for future growth in servers.

Support from a Microsoft operating system is a crucial element in ensuring success, especially in the server arena, where AMD seeks to form new relationships with large manufacturers and win new corporate customers.

AMD is also expected to introduce the official name of the server version of Hammer. The company filed trademark applications on the potential names Metaron, Opteron and Vanton earlier this year.

Microsoft's endorsement would give a leg up to both desktop and server versions of Hammer, pointing the way to desktop PC vendors and server makers that offer the chips in future Windows-based machines. The server-side endorsement would provide an especially large boost among corporate buyers who typically use Windows or Linux operating systems. AMD counts winning these buyers over as a group as key to future growth.

The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant set the stage for Hammer support last week when it said Windows would support servers based around Non-Uniform Memory Architecture, or NUMA.

NUMA is called such as it is able to take different amounts of time to fetch information from memory. NUMA groups processors and memory into several separate cells. A processor fetching information from memory within its cell can get the data rapidly. Under standard server architectures, memory and processors are separated from each other and communicate across a heavily trafficked bus. Hammer chips are expected to be used in NUMA servers.

Meanwhile, Linux developers such as SuSE are already offering support for Hammer. Thanks to the work of SuSE, for example, the next major public update for Linux will include support for Hammer. Many other companies have begun to port their operating systems and applications to run on the chip family, as well.

But, up until now, Microsoft has remained mum on whether it would offer support for the chips. Its endorsement will help AMD complete the picture for Sledgehammer, the server version of Hammer, due next year. Until then, the chipmaker plans to launch ClawHammer, a desktop PC processor due later this year.

The shift to 64 bits
The Hammer family, AMD has said, will offer higher clock speeds and overall performance than the Athlon line. A major new feature for the chips will be 64-bit addressing, which AMD has dubbed x86-64.

The x86-64 technology works by adding several new instructions to the current x86 processor architecture so that it can address 64 bits of data, making for enhanced performance, though mostly for servers. It allows a chip to address much larger amounts of memory than current AMD Athlon and Intel Pentium x86-based chips, which address 32 bits of data, meaning that a server can use a much larger amount of RAM, improving access times by minimizing its need to seek out data on a hard drive. x86-64 allows AMD chips to support both 32- and 64-bit addressing.

Intel's work on getting software developers to port their wares to Itanium, its 64-bit chip, is likely helping AMD because it has taught developers how to accomplish the task.

"Some of the memory management arithmetic breaks down when you go from 32- to 64-bit chips," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at consulting firm Insight 64.

Although Microsoft's endorsement is significant, AMD still faces an uphill road in this market and will have to convince hardware manufacturers, software developers and corporate customers to invest time and energy into using Hammer as a 64-bit chip.

"Even if they get the support of Microsoft, will they be able to line up suppliers of enterprise servers to carry Hammer?" asked Brookwood. "IBM, HP, Compaq, Unisys, Fujitsu, Sun--it's a short list."

AMD may also announce the name for the server version of its Hammer chip, code-named SledgeHammer. It recently registered a few possibilities for its ClawHammer chip with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, including Metaron and Opteron.

AMD executives could not immediately be reached for comment.