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Intel unveils its 32/64-bit chips

The Xeon rival to AMD's Opteron debuts in workstations, with server versions said to be on the way.

Intel's first chip that runs 32-bit and 64-bit software debuted in workstations on Monday, with the company promising a server version will arrive in two months.

The new Xeon processor, formerly code-named Nocona, runs at speeds of 3.6GHz and lower and comes out with a complementary chipset called the E7525. It can handle both 32-bit software, found on most PCs and small Linux servers, and 64-bit software such as complex database programs.

The first version of the 32/64-bit Xeon is designed for dual-processor workstations. Dell, Hewlett-Packard and other computer makers have announced boxes that integrate the chip. These range in price from $850 to $1,800, depending on the configuration.

A server version will come out within 60 days, said Abhi Talwalkar, the general manager of the Enterprise Platform Group at Intel. 32/64-bit chips that can be used to build servers with four or more processors will come out in late 2004 or early 2005, he added.

Despite this, SuperMicro and other smaller PC makers have already introduced servers with the 32/64-bit Xeon. In addition, some companies, such as digital editing software maker Avid Technology, have announced they have tweaked their 32-bit Intel products to run in 64-bit mode.

Most current Intel and AMD chips can run only 32-bit software, which means they digest data in 32-bit chunks. One of the chief limitations of these chips is that they pull data from just 4GB of memory. That's not a problem in desktops--high-end machines come with only 1GB and likely won't feature 4GB for a few years--but server makers have been complaining about the memory ceiling.

Last year, AMD released Opteron, the first 32/64-bit chip based on the popular x86 architecture. It has been adopted by IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems. Until Opteron, few large computer makers had ever incorporated AMD chips into their corporate machines.

Overall, Nocona workstations provide a roughly 30 percent improvement in performance over existing Xeons in 32-bit mode, Talwalkar said. The 64-bit capability should increase those benefits, he added.

While the 32/64-bit functionality of the new Xeon is likely to make the most impact in workstations and servers, the chip will enable other new features. PCI Express, for instance, will link the processor to the rest of a computer using high-speed links, and the system will also be capable of using DDR 2 memory.

By 2005, the vast majority of Intel's server and workstation chips will be capable of processing 64-bit software, Talwalkar said. However, computer manufacturers will only gradually begin to use the processors in this fashion.

Pat Patla, the director of workstation and server marketing for AMD, said that while Intel has been able to bake in 32/64-bit processing, it has not matched many of AMD's chip architecture enhancements. AMD's Opteron has an integrated memory controller, which speeds up performance, he said. In addition, the HyperTransport links featured in Opteron shuttle data faster than the PCI Express connections in the Xeon and are used more extensively in the processor, he said.

Opteron also consumes far less energy, Patla said. Still, he conceded that Opteron cannot accommodate DDR 2 memory yet.

Now that the Xeon is released, the industry will be able to judge whether it is likely to cannibalize sales of Itanium, a 64-bit chip from Intel that runs different software.

Intel maintains that the new chip won't. Itanium provides superior performance for 64-bit work overall, and it will be in demand for the most complex computing jobs, the chipmaker said.

The 32/64-bit Xeon is compatible with existing software, however, which could prove to be a big selling point. Marc West, the chief information officer at games developer Electronic Arts who took part in a conference call for Intel, said that the chip gives the company a way to ease into 64-bit computing.

By contrast, he called Itanium an "all or nothing" proposition. "With the new structure, we are looking at a way of easing into it," West said.

But G-Trade Services, the online trading division of The Bank of New York, said on the that call it had adopted Itanium last year to run a Java-based transaction application and will likely keep using it.

"Java is a memory pig," Joe Weisbord, the chief technology officer at G-Trade, said. "We kept hitting the 32-bit max."

Ivan Tay, the director of product management at SuperMicro, said that the new Xeon will allow customers to get to 64-bit computing for less.

"Itanium 2 is just too expensive," he said. "In the past, Opteron was gaining momentum. Last year, people started maxing out on the 4GB limit."

The 3.6GHz version of the 32/64-bit Xeon is priced at $851 in quantities of 1,000 and is available in limited quantities only. Under the same terms the different versions sell at the following prices: 3.4GHz for $690; 3.2GHz for $455; 3GHz for $316 and 2.8GHz for $209. The E7525 chipset sells for $100.