AMD chip to compete with Itanium

Compatible with existing processors, Opteron eases migration to newer technology

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Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) Inc., angling to compete with Intel Corp. in the high-powered microprocessor arena, has released a new 64-bit processor called Opteron that is fully backward-compatible with existing 32-bit applications.

The chip is already being used in a massive 10,000-processor supercomputer that Cray Inc. is building for the Energy Department's Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. NASA uses earlier AMD chips in clusters, and the Defense Department and other agencies have expressed interest in the new processor, according to AMD officials.

The company designed Opteron using the existing instruction set that has powered Intel's x86 line of processors. The instruction set turns programming languages into the binary code that tells computers what to do. Intel, by contrast, designed its 64-bit Itanium chip using a new instruction set.

As a result, Itanium is divorced from its 32-bit predecessors, while Opteron is in the same line, said David Freund, a technology analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H.

AMD expects Opteron to have broad appeal in the high-end computer market, said Rick Indyke, the company's federal government business development manager. The processor is suited for "Anybody who's got large applications today, who's got 32-bit apps on the verge of pushing the limits," he said. "For the first time, we're offering customers a choice as they begin to make a move into the next generation of technology."

The company also plans to market the new processor as a more versatile replacement for proprietary Unix processors, such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris, he added. AMD launched the processor at a New York event last week, flanked by supporting partners including IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp.

AMD's hardware partners will begin incorporating the chip into servers by the third quarter of this fiscal year, Indyke added. Apart from Sandia, several potential customers are evaluating the processor, along with systems integrators.

AMD plans to use the processor as a springboard to expand its federal presence. The company has been best known as a consumer player, making rivals to Intel's chips for home computers. Recently, its share in both the federal and commercial business markets has begun to grow, although AMD's federal market share is still less than 6 percent, Indyke said.

The new processor gives potential customers a tough choice, said Illuminata's Freund. Because it offers backward compatibility, Opteron makes migration from a 32-bit environment to a 64-bit one easier to accomplish. Agencies won't have to immediately replace or rewrite their 32-bit applications.

"Moving applications to Itanium requires that you recompile the soft-ware, at a minimum," he said. "There's a tremendous performance penalty to try to run your 32-bit apps on Itanium. Opteron is an extension to the x86. Itanium is a complete departure."

However, Itanium may offer the greater power and flexibility in coming years. "The Intel approach is...they believe that the x86 architecture is sufficiently long in the tooth that there's only so much additional performance that can be gained from it," Indyke said. "They wanted to start with a clean slate, something that has more potential for growth going into the future."

However, history may be on AMD's side, Freund added. With the sole exception of the Alpha chip by Digital Equipment Corp. (now a division of Hewlett-Packard Co.), "all successful 64-bit implementations have been extensions" of existing technology, he said.

Both AMD and Intel are angling to move into the high-end computing space, which demands 64-bit processors, Freund said. Modern processors, even in home computers, can crunch data at dizzying rates. But they are slowed when they have to retrieve data.

The 64-bit processors can retrieve and hold far more data than 32-bit chips, greatly increasing their efficiency. A 32-bit chip can manage up to about 4G of memory, while a 64-bit processor can manage up to 18 billion gigabytes, or 18 exabytes. Because it can load so much data into memory, the processor doesn't have to spin aimlessly while waiting for data from a hard disk.

"The more disk input/output you can avoid, the faster your transactions," Freund said. He stated that 64 bits "has become the norm for anyone trying to move large numbers of transactions through the system."

Cray officials became aware of the processor when they were trying to find the best technology to use in a bid for the Sandia supercomputer project, said Cray spokesman Steve Conway. Cray won the $90 million contract late last year. The project is on schedule and due to become fully operational in January 2005.

"We looked at everything that's out there," he said. "This is not a case where you can have favorites. We wanted to win the bid so we went with what we thought would win the bid."

The flexibility between 64- and 32-bit processing was one of the two strong points of Opteron, Conway said. "Most of the world of supercomputers has been 64-bit for 30 years. But there are still a lot of applications that it makes sense to run at 32-bit," he said.

Cray also liked Opteron's Hyper-Transport technology, which speeds the transportation of data from one processor to another in multiprocessor clusters.

"People take for granted that the speed of the processor is the speed of the computer," Conway said. "It turns out that that's not true. But even if it were true, when you get into systems with hundreds or thousands of processors, the difference between the additive speeds of the processors and the actual speed of the system when you turn it on can be enormous."

Many clustered systems operate at 5 percent or less of the speed of the individual processors from which they're built, he said. The Opteron cluster, by contrast, may function at 15 percent to 25 percent of peak efficiency.

"That's a huge improvement," he said. "Those bottlenecks are very real."

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