AMD's Hammer chips get Microsoft nod

The chipmaker will collaborate with the software giant to tune Windows to run on AMD's upcoming family of Hammer chips. Also: AMD introduces "Opteron" for servers.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
AMD confirmed Wednesday that it will collaborate with Microsoft to tune Windows to run on its upcoming family of Hammer chips.

As reported earlier, Microsoft's decision is a strong endorsement for AMD. Although its chips are widely used in the consumer market, the company remains a marginal player in the corporate world.

With Linux developers and now Microsoft formally committing to gear their operating systems for the company's chips, AMD can begin to convince server manufacturers and IT managers to move away from a diet based strictly on Intel and RISC (reduced instruction set computing) technology.

The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based processor maker also unveiled the official names for Hammer chips. The desktop versions of the chip, currently code-named Clawhammer and slated for release at the end of the year, will be sold under the Athlon name.

The multiprocessor versions of the chip for servers, code name Sledgehammer and due in the first half of 2003, will be sold under the name Opteron. The name derives from the Latin "optimus," which suggests best, vital, potent and mighty, according to AMD.

Hammer chips differ from existing chips in that they can read 32-bit code, the basis for nearly all software for PCs today, and 64-bit code, used by high-end servers. Among their other advantages, 64-bit computers can manage more than 4GB of memory, the physical limit for 32-bit machines.

The chip's ambidextrous nature brings a number of advantages, according to AMD. Among the advantages, AMD can use the same basic chip design to span a wide variety of computers, according to Dirk Meyer, group vice president of AMD's computational products group.

In addition, the same chip core can be used in everything from notebooks to multiprocessor servers, allowing for the same software to work on all these machines. Many, like Microsoft, will tune their software to fully take advantage of the so-called 64-bit mode, but it's not necessary. Without taking a performance hit, 32-bit applications will run on computers running Hammer as a 32-bit chip as well as those running Hammer in 64-bit mode.

"Hammer will allow us to play across a wide variety of applications," Meyer said.

By contrast, Intel has two chip architectures: the 32-bit Pentium family for everything from notebooks to small servers, and the 64-bit Itanium for large servers based around a completely different architecture. Software for the Pentium family runs, but not well, on Itanium, according to analysts; and Itanium software doesn't run on Pentiums.

To cure this discrepancy, sources say, Intel is working on a chip called Yamhill that will perform in a similar manner as Hammer.

While Hammer's flexibility is an advantage, AMD still faces an uphill battle in getting mass acceptance in the corporate market.

Both Microsoft and AMD were vague on the details of the versions of Windows optimized for Hammer. Pricing and tentative release schedules were not revealed. It is also unclear whether Microsoft will include the Hammer extensions into all versions of Windows or a specialized one. The companies, though, were emphatic that Microsoft engineers would be performing the lion's share of the work.

Although Microsoft's endorsement is significant, AMD will still 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 (Computer), Unisys, Fujitsu, Sun (Microsystems)--it's a short list."

Hammer will likely find much quicker acceptance in the desktop arena, but many won't use it as a 64-bit chip for a year or more, according to analysts and AMD executives. Most desktop applications are written for 32-bit chips, and there is little demand for desktops with 4GB of memory.

"It is going to be a workstation and server story for a while," IDC analyst Roger Kay said.