IBM backs 64-bit Intel chip plan

Big Blue is eager to embrace Intel's newly announced 64-bit Xeon processors, building support for them into chipsets at the heart of IBM's next-generation servers.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
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SAN FRANCISCO--IBM is eager to embrace Intel's newly announced 64-bit Xeon processors, building support for them into chipsets at the heart of Big Blue's next-generation servers.

"We have already enabled our chipsets to exploit the Xeon extensions," Tom Bradicich, chief technology officer of IBM's Intel-based server line, said in an interview at the Intel Developer Forum here. The 64-bit support will arrive in the Enterprise X Architecture (EXA) 3 chipset due in 2005, he said.

Chipsets are crucial components that connect processors with each other, memory, and subsystems such as storage and networking. IBM's EXA3 chipset, due in 2005, will enable servers with as many as 64 Xeon processors to be built, Bradicich said in January.

Intel's first 64-bit capable Xeon, code-named Nocona, is due in the second quarter of 2004 for dual-processor systems. IBM's EXA3 chipset requires the more powerful "Potomac" Xeon for systems with four or more processors. Potomac is also due in 2005.

As expected, Intel Chief Executive Craig Barrett announced the company's 64-bit Xeon chips Tuesday. The technology is a major change for Intel: It sidesteps the 4GB memory barrier of 32-bit chips; catches up to Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, a rival 64-bit "x86" processor; puts some pressure on Intel's higher-end 64-bit Itanium family; and frees Intel to compete more directly with Opteron.

IBM supports Itanium, which runs software for x86 chips only through a slower emulation mode, but believes Xeon is more important.

"I really believe the combination of customer demand and independent software vendor investment is going to strongly shape the success of Xeon," Bradicich said.

IBM also is anticipating new features with Potomac, Bradicich added. In addition to the better performance, Potomac will bring better reliability and security, he said.

IBM's EXA3 chipset has been tuned to the different characteristics of the 64-bit Xeon, including its faster DDR2 memory interface, its wider 64-bit memory pathway and its capabilities for inter-processor communication, Bradicich said.

Compared with the first-generation DDR memory in use today, DDR2 requires 30 percent less power for a given level of performance, Bradicich said. That's important for blade servers in particular, where space constraints mean that waste heat resulting from power consumption is more of a problem.

DDR2 memory modules also incorporate some electronics that previously were separate on a motherboard, making it easier to build computers, Bradicich added.

Other server makers warm to new Xeon
Adding Itanium into a server line has been a major change for server makers, but dealing with the 64-bit Xeon will be a much simpler process since it's just the next-generation Intel server chip and it can run the existing server software unchanged. Indeed, several server makers already are planning support.

Hewlett-Packard plans to ship servers with the 64-bit Intel technology in the second quarter, after Intel releases Nocona, spokesman Tim Willeford said.

HP is a notable case because it co-developed the Itanium architecture and is heavily committed to the chip as a replacement for its own PA-RISC chips. At the same time, though, HP plans to sell servers using AMD's Opteron, sources say.

Unisys, which like IBM hopes to profit by selling high-end multiprocessor Xeon servers, also said it will sell servers using the technology as soon as Intel releases the new chips. And the 64-bit extensions to Xeon give Unisys a counterweight to AMD's Opteron.

"Unisys is standing by Intel and its technology, as our enterprise clients have made it clear to us that they seek Intel solutions to their mission-critical operations," a Unisys representative said in a statement.

Dell will ship Nocona servers midyear, spokeswoman Wendy Giever said.

Sun Microsystems, which has only recently accepted x86 chips into its product line but hopes to get an edge through its avid support of Opteron, declined to comment for this story.