The path to 64-bit has never been clearer

Itanium may have a place, but without Microsoft's support it now has zero chance of resurrection on the desktop

The results of our labs test of Microsoft's upcoming 64-bit Windows XP held few surprises: the operating system appears stable, and there is no performance penalty when running 32-bit applications.

Similarly, there was little surprise at Microsoft's decision to drop Windows XP for Intel's Itanium (except, perhaps, that it came so late), although this is the clearest message yet that Itanium is dead on the desktop.

Of course the final nail in the coffin for Itanium on the desktop really came last autumn when HP, then the only remaining manufacturer of Itanium workstations, decided it had had enough of that market. This week Microsoft is doing little more than throwing a handful of soil onto the coffin -- but even so, without Microsoft support the chip has practically zero chance of resurrection on the desktop in numbers that would make a difference to Intel's bottom line.

That's not to say Itanium does not still have a place. Since AMD caused the biggest upset in modern microprocessor history with the launch of the Opteron, when it caught Intel seriously off-guard, the latter has hastily been repositioning Itanium up the food chain. It has now settled on high-performance computing and technical computing, leaving the mid-market to the Xeon EM64T with its AMD-like 64-bit extensions.

HP absolutely depends on Itanium for its big iron, where it needs a replacement for the MIPs, Alpha and PA-RISC chips -- hence the $3bn in R&D that HP has put aside for its Integrity line. Silicon Graphics, Unisys, IBM, Dell, NEC and Fujitsu also continue to sell Itanium servers.

But the numbers remain small; despite the fact that Forrester Research says that 95 percent of those companies who have bought Itanium want more, Intel failed to reach its 2004 target, which was to double the 100,000 units shipped in 2003.

The latest moves simply add fuel to the argument that, for most buyers, the way ahead is via either those models in Intel's Xeon and Pentium 4 line up that support 64-bit extensions, or AMD's Opteron and Athlon64 lines. By the end of this year the bulk of processors shipped by AMD will be 64-bit, and you can bet Intel will introduce 64-bit extensions across more of its desktop and server line as Microsoft launches the 64-bit version of Windows XP later this year.

64-bit Linux is already available for these platforms, and the addition of Windows will be the catalyst that drives widespread adoption of 64-bit computing, together with a flood of applications that will take advantage of the benefits it offers.

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