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For Intel, 32/64-bit chips a long time coming

The chipmaker has a long track record of downplaying interest in chips that could read both 32-bit and 64-bit software. Still, over the last decade, it was tinkering away.

SAN FRANCISCO--For years, Intel downplayed its interest in chips that could read both 32-bit and 64-bit software. Still, over the course of the last decade, the company was tinkering with the technology.

Intel has been debating how to develop such chips since the early 1990s, Intel Chief Technology Officer Pat Gelsinger said in an interview at the Intel Developer Forum taking place here this week. It was only in "1999 or 2000," he said, that the chipmaker began working in earnest on the 32/64-bit processors that now are set to appear in server chips in the second quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, it brought to market a pure 64-bit chip, the Itanium, designed for the high end of the server market. The Itanium chip, however, required its own software and operating system. The newer chips are designed for more general-purpose servers and, ostensibly, can run current software while waiting for developers to create new, 64-bit software for them.

Late 1999, of course, is when rival Advanced Micro Devices announced at the Microprocessor Forum that it had blueprints for making a 32/64-bit chip. Originally, AMD said the chip--now known as Opteron--would debut in 2001, but it eventually came out in 2003.

Intel CEO Craig Barrett said Tuesday that Intel plans to come out with server chips that can run both types of software by the second quarter.

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That development comes after years of the bellwether microprocessor company's having pooh-poohed these sorts of hybrid chips. Last year at the conference, senior researchers highlighted the difficulty of developing such chips and bringing them to market. Intel's disclaimers aside, AMD's 32/64-bit chips seem to have caught on with manufacturers such as IBM and Sun Microsystems.

Pentium chips and other desktop PC processors generally run 32-bit software. Chips like the Itanium and Sun's UltraSparc run 64-bit applications. Although 64-bit chips typically run at slower clock speeds, they can pull data from a larger pool of memory and therefore provide greater performance. Software, however, has to be specially written for these 64-bit chips.

Both Intel's and AMD's 32/64-bit processors would handle either type of software.

Gelsinger's comments echoed those of former and current Intel employees about the internal debates at Intel in the early 1990s about whether the company should enhance its 32-bit line for 64-bit computing or make chips based around the then-evolving Itanium architecture.