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64 bits: The next generation

Microsoft and Intel are developing a next-generation PC platform which will be powered by the 64-bit Merced processor packing supercomputer-level performance.

Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) took the first official steps Wednesday toward a new computing paradigm by disclosing that they are developing a next-generation PC platform built on Merced and a 64-bit version of Windows NT.

Intel's next-generation 64-bit Merced processor is expected to put supercomputer power in a PC. The processor, sometimes referred to as the P7, is Intel's next-generation 64-bit processor and will be part of the company's next-generation IA-64 family of processors. It is expected to ship late in 1998.

Currently, Intel processors are 32-bit, which means they process instructions 32 bits at a time.

Analysts expect the first versions of Merced to run as fast as 500 MHz and give PCs running the next version of Windows NT almost unimaginable computing power.

"This would pretty much put a supercomputer on your desktop," said Michael Slater, publisher of the Sebastopol, California-based Microprocessor Report.

Slater said that performance is expected to far exceed today's fastest RISC processors. For example, the Hewlett-Packard 8000 processor currently scores about a 10 for integer operations--one of the principal types of number crunching a processor does--based on the widely-used SPEC 95 benchmark. The Merced is expected to achieve a phenomenal rating of about 40, he said.

Despite the common notion that all this computing power could be of little or no use to the average user, analysts say that just isn't so. "If those [processing] cycles are there and affordable, some [software] developer will make phenomenal use of them to develop an application that you can't even imagine today," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Dataquest, a San Jose, California-based market research firm.

The Merced chip is expected to be a highly parallelized processor that can do many processing tasks simultaneously. Intel is also expected to include hardware to make sure the processor delivers high performance for older applications which have not been recompiled for the Merced processor, Slater said.

Initially the 64-bit NT platform will only be necessary for relatively arcane applications such as databases running on large multiprocessor systems and powerful servers that require more than 4GB of memory capacity, the upper limit for the current 32-bit world, Slater added.

Microsoft will release a preliminary copy of the 64-bit Windows NT operating system "Very Large Memory 64-bit Interface" specification at its upcoming Professional Developers Conference, the company said.

"The combination of Windows NT and Intel's IA-64 processor family will provide seamless support for existing Pentium Pro processor applications and new applications optimized for IA-64 processors," the two companies said in a statement.

"This announcement affirms our commitment to providing customers with high-performance software solutions for IA-64," said Paul Maritz, group vice president of the platforms group at Microsoft.