AMD hammering at 64-bit desktops

Sampling of 64-bit server chip due to PC makers by early 2001. But will there be 64-bit apps?
Written by John G.Spooner, Contributor

Some say it can't or shouldn't be done, but Advanced Micro Devices is looking to an Athlon successor to bring 64-bit computing to the desktop PC.

Although not due until at least late next year, a replacement for Athlon will run at 2GHz and above, offering 64-bit memory addressing, AMD officials revealed here at PC Expo. The new chip will be based on technology from AMD's 64-bit server chip, code-named Sledgehammer.

"The Hammer," as it is known inside AMD, will the company's first server/workstation processor to offer 64-bit addressing. The chip will begin sampling to major PC makers in the first quarter of next year, AMD officials said.

What makes 64-bit memory addressing more desirable than the current 32-bit memory addressing is the ability for processors, applications and operating systems to utilise a larger amount of physical memory, in theory up to terabyte levels (although not every application, operating system or processor chip set will support a terabyte of memory).

Because it is based on Sledgehammer, the new desktop chip will have the ability to -- code segment by code segment -- recognise and switch between 32-bit and 64-bit code, AMD officials said. That means Sledgehammer users will be able to run 64-bit applications on desktop PCs.

The benefits of having 64-bit memory addressing on the desktop would come on high-end applications. Graphics applications, such as Adobe PhotoShop, would see performance improvements from 64-bit memory addressing. As would other applications, such as computer aided design (CAD), AMD officials said.

Still, it remains to be seen whether application developers will create 64-bit versions of their popular desktop applications. "We could come out with Sledgehammer and have no 64-bit applications. It (without them) would still be a fast 32-bit processor," said Bob Mitton, division marketing manager for Workstation Products. He said the benefit to consumers and corporations would be the ability to "run (64-bit applications) on the same machine as I do exchange."

AMD's 64-bit strategy is much different from that of rival Intel. Intel has developed an entirely new 64-bit processor architecture and instruction set under the brand name Itanium and is fostering the development of new compilers, operating systems and applications to go with it. AMD, on the other hand, will add new 64-bit instructions to the current version of its Athlon X86 instruction set. Because of this approach, AMD says, its chip will be able to offer 64-bit support without compromising the performance of 32-bit applications. Most software available today is 32-bit, with the exception of some 16-bit desktop applications and large enterprise applications that are tuned for the 64-bit Alpha chip.

When it begins the manufacture of its new Sledgehammer-family of chips, AMD is also likely to begin implementation new manufacturing tricks to help increase performance.

Speaking at PC Expo, AMD President and Chief Operating Office Hector de J. Ruiz said he believes his company's future depends on innovating its manufacturing with the use of copper metal interconnect technology, in production now, along with low capacitance dielectrics and silicon on insulator technology. All three techniques, at their most basic level, are designed to improve performance of processors.

AMD's Mitton confirms, "We're actively researching (new manufacturing techniques)." However, it may be awhile before they are put into production. "It's not going to be this year," he said.

While Sledgehammer and its variants are still a ways away, AMD is readying another new processor core. AMD officials said this week that the company's Mustang processor core would yield a number of new chips in the second half of the year.

The core, which supports up to 1MB of integrated level 2 cache, will yield desktop chips, workstation and server chips and mobile chips. The desktop chips will come in both Duron and Athlon flavours, while the server chips will, most likely, be marketed under the brand Athlon Ultra, AMD officials said.

AMD also disclosed for the first time at PC Expo its plans to offer a mobile Duron chip along with a mobile Athlon. The differentiators between the two mobile chips are expected to be clock speed and cache size, along with price. Both chips will be based on a mobile version of the Mustang core, which now has its own code name: Corvette.

Clock speeds will vary depending on the chip, but the Mustang chip for high-end desktops and servers is expected to debut at or close to 1.3GHz. However, AMD's desktop Duron, due to its market position, and mobile Duron and mobile Athlon chips, due to their mobile status, will come in at significantly lower clock speeds.

Now that the gigahertz barrier has been broken, what's next? Will anyone care when we pass 2GHz? Michael Caton thinks not. Go and read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

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