Itanium begins 64-bit move

Sound the fanfare? Could Intel's long-anticipated Itanium be an IT cost saviour?

Sound the fanfare? Could Intel's long-anticipated Itanium be an IT cost saviour?

This week will see the long-awaited arrival of Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip, which could eventually lead to huge speed gains, particularly on servers and graphics workstations. However, difficulties in porting applications and drivers to 64-bit systems will cause many firms to delay their move to 64-bit PC computing.

Many peripheral drivers will need to be rewritten to run on 64-bit systems. Firms using the Microsoft Management Console will need two versions: a 64-bit version to manage 64-bit applications and a 32-bit version for 32-bit applications.

Risk-averse firms are likely to be reluctant to make the move to the IA-64 platform. Chris Harris, system manager at wholesaler STL, said: "You gain experience with an operating system; familiarity and comfort are big factors. I don't think we would change just to pare a few pounds off the budget."

Itanium is expected to radically change the cost structure of enterprise computing because nearly all the major computer makers will use the chip, in some cases instead of expensive Risc processors.

But firms must change proprietary code to gain from Itanium. John Bainbridge, regional e-business manager at Intel UK, said: "Itanium is backward-compatible with our other chips and will support some 32-bit software. Unchanged software won't take advantage of the 64-bit platform though, and may not perform as well as on 32-bit systems." But Bainbridge said some firms know older software costs too much to maintain. "It may be much easier to start afresh."

Intel has been working with software partners, including Microsoft, to ensure new products are optimised for IA-64. It has also set up application porting centres for software vendors to translate code.

Initial uptake of the chip and supporting systems is expected to be slow, and Intel admitted Itanium would merely be a testing and development platform at many firms. Demand is expected to grow when Itanium's successor, McKinley, is released next year.

Itanium chips will be available at speeds of 800MHz and 733MHz. IBM will launch its IntelliStation Z-Pro 6894 dual-Itanium workstation simultaneously with Intel.

Dell is to launch an Itanium server, the PowerEdge 7150, in July or August.

Microsoft said the 64-bit version of Windows XP for workstations will launch on October 25, and a high-end 64-bit version of XP is scheduled to follow in early 2002.