The Battle in 64 bit Land, 2003 and Beyond

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This is the third article in a series that I started in 2000 with The Looming Battle in 64 bit Land and updated with The Battle in 64 bit Land Revisited in 2001. In the year and a half since there have been a number of important events in this esoteric but important market segment. These events are reviewed and then attention is turned to 2003, a crucial year for determining the future leaders in the high end 64 bit MPU market.

02/25/2003 Note: This article has had some minor modifications and edits since it was originally published


Winners and Losers under a Darkening Sky

The most important events in the 64 bit universe in the past year and a half have been outside the technical arena. Dominating everything was a major industry downturn from a weakened economy, reduced capital spending due to the events of September 11th and recent U.S. corporate scandals. Especially hard hit was Sun Microsystems which suffered a significant reduction in revenue, down 32% from two years ago in the face of both the down turn in the economy and increasing competitive pressure, mainly from Dell and IBM [1]. Sun was squeezed hard between low cost and powerful x86 based servers on the low end and IBM’s successful introduction of POWER4 based systems on the high end.

Troubled computer giant Compaq surprised the computer world in June 2001 by announcing all Alpha development would cease after the EV79. The former EV8 development team was recruited by Intel essentially intact and was immediately put to work learning the ins and outs of IA64. Ironically Alpha itself would outlive its short sighted owner as Compaq was acquired by Hewlett Packard in a controversial deal which included a long and bitter fight between HP management and a faction of stockholders which included members of the Hewlett and Packard families. HP now faces the tricky problem of growing a product line based on a new 64 bit architecture (IA64) while managing the winding down of two others (PA-RISC and Alpha).

Last July, Intel started commercial shipments of the IA64 processor known during development as McKinley, under the trade name Itanium 2. The unexpectedly robust performance of this device was somewhat overshadowed by Intel’s failure to deliver an accompanying chipset in a timely manner. This likely factored in a long, and what some saw as ominous, delay by Dell in announcing it would adopt the Itanium 2 and its successors. What wasn’t surprising was HP’s ability to hit the ground running with Itanium 2, having participated heavily in its development. Indeed, for several months the only Itanium 2 based hardware shipping were 1 to 4 CPU systems based on HP’s ZX1 chipset.

Also hard hit over the last year and a half was aspiring 64 bit player Advanced Micro Devices. It racked up a string of money losing quarters during which it gave up most of the x86 market share gains obtained during its period of peak competitive advantage when it wielded a superior product against a stumbling and bumbling Intel. Despite serious difficulty with both of its primary businesses, x86 MPUs and flash memory, AMD determinedly pushed forward with a scheme to bridge the gap between the popular mass market, 32 bit world of PC hardware and the corporate and technical world of 64 bit computing by extending x86 to 64 bits (x86-64). AMD plans to introduce two versions of its x86-64 based 0.13 mm K8 generation devices this year, the Athlon 64 for PCs, and the more powerful Opteron for workstations and small to mid scale servers.

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