AMD's Sledgehammer is a blow to Intel's Itanium

AMD chief Sanders says Itanium will be a stumbling block for Intel in the 32-bit arena and he can't wait to cash in on it...

Jerry Sanders, chief executive and chairman of Intel rival AMD, said during an interview in Hannover on Monday that his company's 64-bit Sledgehammer processor, due at the end of 2001, will be "the realisation of AMD's dream". Sledgehammer will allow the company to exploit what it sees as a tactical error in Intel's 64-bit strategy.

The new processor will have the edge over Intel's Itanium, according to Sanders, in that it will be better able to run existing 32-bit software. "Intel is abandoning its 32-bit market with Itanium, forcing customers to move to completely new [64-bit] software," he said.

The statement, while overblown -- Intel's Itanium does run 32-bit software, but Sanders argues it will do so slower than existing Pentium IIIs -- points to a significant risk for AMD: it is betting that corporations moving to a 64-bit architecture will still demand high performance in the 32-bit space. The company is also hoping that Microsoft will support its move. Sanders explained: "Sledgehammer will be an extension of current x86 instruction, and yes, for us to win out, we need support from Microsoft and that's a risk. They could say no."

Asked if Sledgehammer could keep up with Itanium's native 64-bit performance, Sanders would offer no guarantees. "What I can guarantee is that our customers will be able to run 64-bit applications and 32-bit applications with state-of-the-art silicon, and fast. Intel cannot do that, and for any company moving to Itanium, they'd better start saving for new software."

Intel would neither confirm nor deny Sanders' prediction that Itanium will be a slug on existing 32-bit software. A company spokesman told ZDNet on Tuesday that, "Itanium is a 64-bit processor and it is entirely common that when you move to a new architecture, you have to recompile your existing applications to get full benefit." When pressed, the spokesman added: "I can't comment on this because we are not that far in our testing. There is some early silicon out there, but it's too early to say. What I would like to emphasise is that Itanium has built-in 32-bit capability."

Senior analyst at Dataquest, Joe D'Elia, threw some cold water of Sanders' claims, but at the same time did not undermine Sledgehammer's future. " I don't actually think he [Sanders] is right -- there is a real requirement for 64-bit software for data mining and people running large Oracle databases and so on. Current 64-bit software will not run on Itanium, but don't forget it can be recompiled to work with the chip. And Intel has worked hard over last two years, with the Itanium development fund for example, to ensure there will be enough software available to make the move to Itanium worth it at launch."

D'Elia argues that companies moving to IA-64 will be willing to move their software "otherwise they'd stick with IA-32. That said, I'm confident that Sledgehammer will do well, but it has got its work cut out for it trying to penetrate the server and high end workstation space. I think another thing AMD needs to look at that by the time Sledgehammer arrives, McKinley (Itanium's successor) will be there with much better performance."

Sanders reckons Intel's move to 64-bit is another example of its willingness to bully customers onto new architectures. "Customers do not want to go to new software and new operating systems because they're using a new chip... Itanium, from what we have seen and heard will run 32-bit software, at best, as an 800MHz solution. It has a large die, it's expensive and it's slow."

Itanium is expected to launch around the middle of 2000, more than a year earlier than Sledgehammer.

Sledgehammer is Sanders' last project before handing over the reins at AMD to former Motorola executive, Hector de Ruiz.

See also Eye2Eye with AMD's Jerry Sanders Part I.

See also Eye2Eye with AMD's Jerry Sanders Part II.

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