Waiting on apps

High-performance computing users in scientific and biomedical areas are accustomed to developing their own software. But for most agencies, the availability of commercial off-the-shelf operating systems and applications is an important criterion for the purchase of any new chip architecture.

Eventually, Linux and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows will be available for the new generation of 64-bit chips designed for a commodity server market: Intel Corp.'s Itanium 2 and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc.'s Opteron. But so far, Intel's chip, which has almost a two-year lead over Opteron, enjoys more support. Linux operating system vendor SuSE Inc. currently has Linux versions for both chips. Its competitor Red Hat Inc. only supports Itanium 2. However, Red Hat has announced that the next version of its Enterprise Linux, due sometime this fall, will offer support for 64-bit architectures — including AMD's Opteron. Database support is strong. Virtually all major databases support Linux on both Itanium and Opteron. But so far, there are few commercial business applications available for 64-bit commodity chip-based systems. The most notable exception is SAP AG. The enterprise application vendor has been working on Linux-Itanium 2 versions of its business applications and is now releasing some to current customers. They will be more widely available by December. Helge Deller, development manager of the Linux lab at SAP, said the company's bigger customers "are seriously in need of the ability to address larger blocks of memory," and so they've been clamoring for a 64-bit Linux version. He said that most midsize customers will remain with 32-bit systems, but SAP has designed the upgrade to allow for a mixed 32- and 64-bit environment. That should allow customers to upgrade a single server, for example, when they need to replace one anyway. The SAP Itanium 2 upgrade was an extensive project, and Deller said there is no current plan to do the same for Opteron. No other major business software vendor has announced support for Linux on either Itanium 2 or Opteron yet. But that doesn't mean you can't run 32-bit applications on the 64-bit chips. Opteron is backward compatible with 32-bit x86 code chips. Itanium is not backward compatible. Although you can run 32-bit applications on Itanium 2, you take a performance hit, according to Vito Valenzano, director of center of excellence at information technology products provider Insight Enterprises Inc. "The truth is, running 32-bit apps on Itanium 2 is pretty ugly," he said. Tom Donnelly, director of marketing for the public sector at Intel, acknowledges the problem, although he said much of it has been solved in the newest Itanium 2 releases.

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