The Looming Battle in 64 Bit Land

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Clash of the Titans

The ongoing knife fight between Intel and AMD for mind share and sockets in the 32-bit x86 marketplace has been widely publicized. This is due in part to the fact that it will be providing millions of PC buyers with immediately tangible benefits from the rapid introduction of faster processors by both sides, along with the accompanying price cuts on existing parts. It is also due to the personal computer’s increasingly mainstream role in popular culture. With this wider exposure, Intel and AMD are sometimes put in the surrogate role of a favored home town sports team in the minds of vociferously partisan and vocal groups of fans and supporters on each side.

But there is another important, though lesser known, processor battle looming. It is in the realm of the expensive, power hungry, high pin-count 64-bit processors used in applications such as high end technical workstations and departmental and enterprise class servers. These ‘big iron’ processors sell in volumes two orders of magnitude lower than 32-bit x86 devices, and are often priced similarly to a an entire top-of-the-line PC. Nevertheless these prestigious, if somewhat esoteric, microprocessors drive the sales of tens of billions of dollars of large computer systems per year, which power much of our large corporations and institutions. The market for this high margin hardware will imminently undergo explosive growth to enable the widely anticipated internet economy of the future.

The Players

The high end computing market is currently the exclusive reserve of 64-bit RISC processor families such as the Compaq Alpha, SGI MIPS, HP PA-RISC, IBM Power, and Sun SPARC. Although Intel has had some success at driving its Xeon processor line into low end servers, the x86 instruction set architecture is 32 bits, while many of the large applications that run on high-end machines, such as database management systems (DBMS) and computer-aided design (CAD), demand the large flat address spaces in excess of 4 Gbytes that only 64 bit processors can provide. Intel and AMD both plan to tackle this market, but are going about it in quite different ways. For the last six years Intel and HP have been developing a new RISC-like architecture called IA-64 that includes a compatibility mode that allows it to also run x86 code. AMD is taking the bold and controversial step of extending the x86 architecture (once again!) into full ’64-bit hood’ while retaining the ability to freely run x86 legacy code.

If the current plans of some of the contestants are carried out, the 64-bit high end processor market will become a little less crowded within a few years despite the arrival of IA-64. SGI has announced that it intends to replace the MIPS RISC processors in its mid range and high end systems with Intel IA-64 processors. Curiously, both IBM and Compaq are planning the schizophrenic strategy of offering systems based on both IA-64 processors and their own respective RISC processors. HP is officially in the same camp as SGI in that they have announced the intention of replacing their PA-RISC family with IA-64. Unofficially however, HP seems to stand with IBM and Compaq because it has a publicly disclosed a development roadmap of future PA-RISC CPUs that stretches surprisingly far into the future. Sun Microsystems is the lone holdout against surrendering to, or even fraternizing with, IA-64. Although Sun has made some unconvincing noises about porting their Solaris operating system to IA-64, they have no plans to offer IA-64 based hardware. Sun seems prepared to ride the SPARC horse exclusively as far as it will go.

Currently Shipping 64 bit Processors

The approximate competitive positioning (based on integer and floating point performance) of currently available 64-bit high end microprocessors is shown in Figure 1. The performance of the Intel ‘Coppermine’ Pentium III 1.0 GHz x86 32-bit processor is also included as a reference point. The position of the current Sun high end SPARC processor is estimated because Sun has not yet seen fit to disclose SPEC2000 benchmark results for it.

Figure 1. Currently Shipping 64-bit RISC Processors (and high end x86)

Note that the Intel 32-bit x86 processor achieves respectably high integer performance due to its high clock rate afforded by the early access to 0.18 um process technology (nearly all the RISC processors shown are manufactured in processes in the 0.22 to 0.28 um range). Most of the flagship parts of the competing RISC processor families, along with the Merced/Itanium IA-64 processor, will be manufactured in 0.18 um technologies within the next six to twelve months.

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