Operating system support is a crucial factor for the success of Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, whose 64-bit design can address vast amounts of memory more easily than Intel's rival 32-bit Xeon or Pentium processors can. Although Opteron can run older 32-bit software, programs must be rebuilt to take advantage of the 64-bit features.
The next crucial hurdle will be for AMD to find major computer makers that are willing to use the chip, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.
"It's going to be very important that there be some tier-one (manufacturer) support," he said. "At end of day, customers are a lot more interested in Opteron if IBM and Dell are selling systems, than if they can only buy them from a regional integrator oror some other relatively small system player."
Most desktop computers don't yet exceed the 4GB memory limit of 32-bit chips--typically divided into 2GB for the operating system and 2GB for other software. But Opteron is designed for servers, more powerful machines that handle networked computing chores such as housing databases with many gigabytes of information.
SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) can address as much as 512GB of memory on an Opteron system, half the 1 terabyte limit of the processor itself and an amount that only today's most powerful servers, with dozens of processors, can accommodate. Although AMD has grand ambitions, initial Opteron systems will be much smaller dual-processor models.
Linux is first out of the gates supporting Opteron's 64-bit features, though an. SuSE and Red Hat are the two major sellers of Linux, with Red Hat leading the market and second-place SuSE providing the software for the four-company consortium. Paris-based MandrakeSoft, a smaller player working to , released its in March.
One future step for Opteron is higher-level software support. SuSE demonstrated IBM's DB2 database software for Opteron in March, while Red Hat plans to show off an Opteron version of DB2's database rival from Oracle at the Opteron launch, the companies said.
SuSE has been more aggressive than Red Hat in embracing computers beyond Linux's stronghold on Intel Pentium and Xeon processors. Its SLES software now runs on computers with those processors, on computers with Opteron chips, on computers with Intel's 64-bit Itanium competitor and on IBM's four different server lines.
"We have built a family of products out of one single source-code base," said Markus Rex, head of development for SuSE. That unification makes it easier for software companies to make their products available for multiple computer lines.
A close partnership
, beginning work in 2000 to create a version of Linux for Opteron and future members of the x86-64 chip family such as Athlon 64. Rex said AMD took suggestions on how best to design the chip's circuitry for running Linux, and when the first chip prototype emerged, it took three days to get the SuSE version up and running.
"There was a very close collaboration to make sure there is one enterprise-class operating system ready at launch," Rex said, though he declined to detail financial terms of the partnership.
Red Hat plans a similar unification with the next edition of itssoftware, version 3.0 that's due in the fall.
"Red Hat didn't want to get involved in rolling any new architectures into their Enterprise Linux line until everything comes together with Enterprise Linux 3.0," Haff said.
SLES for Opteron costs $448, including 12 months' access to the SuSE Linux Maintenance Program for one server.
The 64-bit version of SLES runs 32-bit applications software about 5 percent faster than the 32-bit version, Rex said. When the applications as well as the operating system are 64-bit editions, the performance boost is about 5 percent to 10 percent, he said.
The system has a performance advantage over Xeon servers when more than 4GB of memory are used, Rex added. Although Xeon systems such as IBM's x440 can address as much 64GB of memory, they must switch back and forth between different 4GB chunks through a technology called physical address extension.
SuSE's Opteron version of Linux also can store much larger files--8 exabytes, 4 million or more times larger than the 1 or 2 terabyte limit of current 32-bit versions of Linux.
A 64-bit version of IBM's DB2 for Opteron will go on sale this summer, spokeswoman Alise McNeill said.
The DB2 group is "a big early-adopter crowd in IBM," Haff said. "They're very interested in new technologies they think can increase their market share."