Chip giants go their own ways

Intel and AMD's 64-bit chips will have such contrasting technologies that developers and users may have to choose sides.

The giants of the microprocessor industry are marching into next-generation technologies with such conflicting strategies that users may no longer be assured that software written for an Intel chip will work well with rival AMD processors.

Microprocessor titans Intel, Compaq and AMD are this week filling in more of the road maps for their 64-bit chip technologies, expected to power next generation workstations and servers. IBM is also a 64-bit entrant, but is lying low with details.

The new chips are aimed at high-end applications that require large amounts of memory (more than 4GB). Like Compaq's Alpha processor -- a 64-bit chip based on the RISC architecture developed by Digital Equipment -- the two forthcoming chips from Intel and AMD will address 64-bit chunks of data per clock speed, as opposed to the 32-bit chunks processed by current Pentium III or Athlon chips.

The new chips will be suited to workstations and servers because they allow for operating systems and applications, such as databases for high-end data warehouses and e-commerce applications. But that's where the similarities end. The three chips are based on different architectures -- a fact that is already raising concerns from developers who fear they will be forced to invest in multiple code bases and tools to create programs for competing chips. Today, developers can pretty much use common development resources to write for Intel, AMD and other chip architectures.

The diverging chip paths could also impact on corporate computer buyers. The Intel strategy encourages buyers to purchase new hardware, while the AMD approach says, use what you have and add on as you need it. "I think we're coming to a fork in the road in high-end processor design," said Linley Gwenapp, publisher and editorial director of the Microprocessor Report. "As we move into the next generation of processors ... lockstep evolution will not be the case."

Intel will be the first of the challengers to follow Compaq's Alpha into the 64-bit market. Its Itanium chip, due by mid-2000, is a ground-up redesign with a new instruction set -- the basic code executed by the processor -- called EPIC. "With regard to EPIC, we have made a breakthrough in computer architecture that maximises the synergies between hardware and software," said Harsh Sharagpani, principal engineer and IA-64 microarchitecture manager at Intel.

Intel says the EPIC instruction set makes for a hardware design that is essentially more efficient than x86 technology and therefore able to deliver higher performance. For example, EPIC will be able to execute six instructions per clock, compared to the 1.5 or 2 instructions executed by its current 32-bit Pentium III chips.

But because of its new architecture, Itanium requires software developers to rewrite their programs to take advantage of the extra performance. To date, several operating systems, including 64-bit Windows and 64-bit Linux, have been booted on Itanium sample chips, Sharagpani said.

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