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Intel late to 64-bit computing

Intel is late to the 64-bit computing market, but maybe it doesn't really matter.

Despite a rush of announcements on 64-bit technology today from Sun, Digital, and IBM, observers expect Intel to stay the course on its calendar for a 1999 debut for its 64-bit, next-generation Merced processor.

Intel's confidence stems from both the advanced level of technology used in its 64-bit project as well as the dynamics of market that the Merced chip will enter.

Merced chips will be used in high-end servers and workstations, a market Intel has yet to participate in. To date, the chip giant has been supplying its processors mostly to low-end and mid-range computer lines in these markets.

But Intel is in a position where it can only gain market share in the future, even if the chip lags technically, while Sun and Digital must protect existing business lines.

"Is it important to have performance leadership to have a leading role in the market? History says no," said Michael Slater, principal analyst at MicroDesign Resources. "It's not like these companies can take market share away from Intel...Sun has an existing large business, but will be putting a lot of effort into this."

Next week, Hewlett-Packard and Intel will provide a broad overview of the processor's architecture and instruction set at the Microprocessor Forum in San Jose, California.

Observers have said that the advanced state of development surrounding Merced casts some doubt on whether Intel is buying Digital's Alpha line, as rumored.

Technology based on 64-bit processing essentially allows a computer to handle 64 bits of data simultaneously. Currently, most computers are based on a 32-bit design. The faster, more powerful 64-bit systems are expected to be popular in applications such as server computers for handling large volumes of Web traffic or database-intensive "data mining."

The 64-bit servers announced by Digital and IBM today will target those markets.

Both machines use processors based on RISC architectures and run variants of Unix. Sun said it would come out with a 64-bit RISC processor running at 600 MHz next year.

Intel's Merced will be the first 64-bit microprocessor from the chip giant. Codeveloped with HP, the chip will run both Windows NT as well as a variant of Unix being developed by HP and Santa Cruz Organization, said Slater. Clock speeds will probably start at around 600 MHz.

The chip will first be released commercially in the middle of 1999, he estimated, but the full benefits of the technology won't be apparent until the next generation of the chip.

During this time period, "the Merced chip will be reasonably competitive [with the new generation of UltraSparc chips], but it will not show the competitive performance until 2001," said Slater. "It will take the second version of the chip for the performance to get shown."

Sun, however, won't have its new 600-MHz chip out for well over a year from now, leaving a fairly narrow window of opportunity.

Merced's relative level of completeness means also that a purchase of Digital is unlikely, said Slater and others.

"I don't buy it," said one analyst referring to the rumored buyout, who requested anonymity. "The IA 64 architecture could prove to be very compelling."

"Merced is way too far along for it to make sense," added Slater. "The only way this makes sense to me is if Intel is buying off Digital." The two companies are currently in a lawsuit under which Digital is alleging that Intel misappropriated designs from Alpha processors to make Merced. Digital's Alpha chip offerings include a 600-MHz chip.

Still, the technology could be incorporated into the next generation of Merced, according to Ashok Kumar, semiconductor analyst at Southcoast Capital. "DEC has some fairly strong patents," he said, especially in cache architecture.

However, any acquisition could run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission, which is looking into Intel's business practices. "If Intel acquired these patents, no one could make a microprocessor without impinging upon their patents for years. No one would be able to make a microprocessor," he said. "This must be raising hairs at the FTC."

IBM today released the first RS/6000 to use a 64-bit processor and an operating system. The S70 server, which was code-named Raven, will accommodate from 4 to 12 PowerPC RS64 64-bit processors. Until now, the processor has only been used in IBM's AS/400 line. Prior to the S70, the symmetric multiprocessing capabilities of the RS/6000 line extended to eight processors, said a source close to the company. Expanding the number of processors will increase the server's power and, hence, its appeal for computing-intensive departments.

The server will also come with a new 64-bit version of the AIX operating system, AIX 4.3.

Digital released the Alpha Server 8400 and 8200 5/625 systems. Starting at around $174,000, the systems use Digital Unix V4.0, a new 64-bit operating systems with year 2000-ready features. The new OS will come out in December. In addition, Digital announced TruCluster Production Server 1.5V, which will support eight-way clustering and ship in December.