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Intel's Opteron competitor comes out Monday

After downplaying need for 32/64-bit chips, Intel will jump into game with "Nocona," and the world will await verdict from benchmarkers.

The 64-bit squabble will heat up Monday, when Intel comes out with its first 32/64-bit chip for workstations and servers.

Nocona, the code name of a Xeon chip from Intel, can run both 32-bit software, the kind found on most PCs today, and 64-bit software such as complex databases. The chip is expected to debut at 3.6GHz and lower speeds and come with an 800MHz system bus, according to Kevin Krewell, editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report. Intel will also release complementary chipsets.

A variety of manufacturers are expected to come out with workstations incorporating the chip on Monday, with most releasing servers at a later date. Some smaller specialty manufacturers are expected to release servers next week.

Most current Intel and Advanced Micro Devices chips can run only 32-bit software, which means that they digest data in 32-bit chunks. One of the chief limitations of 32-bit chips is that they can work only with systems that have 4GB of memory or less. That's not a problem in desktops--high-end machines come with only 1GB of memory, anyway, and they likely won't have 4 gigs for a few years--but server makers have been complaining about the memory ceiling.

Last year, AMD released Opteron, the first 32/64-bit chip based on the popular x86 architecture. It has been adopted by IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. Before Opteron, few large computer makers had ever incorporated AMD chips into their corporate machines.

Until it announced in February that Nocona would run both types of software, Intel downplayed the need for 32/64-bit chips and promoted its Itanium chip for the 64-bit market.

The 32/64-bit functionality in Nocona and Opteron is similar, but the chips have their differences. Opteron connects to the rest of the computer through HyperTransport links, while Nocona will rely on PCI Express. Nocona also runs at a higher speed, but Opteron gets more work done per clock cycle. Opteron comes with an integrated memory controller, which speeds up processing, while Nocona's controller comes on a separate chip.

Benchmarking sites will likely start scrutinizing the nuances of each chip Monday.

Although the 64-bitness of these chips gets the most coverage, the software choices are limited. Versions of Linux that can run in 64-bit mode are out, but Microsoft won't have its 32/64-bit version of Windows to manufacturers until December. Few 32-bit applications have been enhanced to run in 64-bit mode.