The Battle in 64 bit Land, 2003 and Beyond

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Summary and Conclusion

From a state of confusion and turmoil a new reality in the 64 bit MPU market is starting to emerge, a three way race for technical leadership between AMD’s x86-64, IBM’s PowerPC, and Intel’s IA64 architectures. After years of delay and missteps, IA64 is here and real. Falling well short of the architectural revolution in computer design promised by early EPIC enthusiasts, IA64 is nevertheless a powerful presence due to a very aggressive implementation and broad OEM support. The two factors that seem to stand in the way of IA64 quickly grabbing significant market share are the inevitable shortage of production ready applications in the infancy of any new architecture and the low rates of capital investment in the current economic climate. Intel is doing all it can to alleviate the first stumbling block but the second is beyond even its purview.

AMD is following a very clever strategy by making Opteron and Athlon 64 compelling products on the basis of their performance on the existing 32 bit x86 code base. This avoids a head on confrontation with Intel for the attention of ISVs in developing 64 bit applications, a battle it cannot win. Instead, by piggybacking x86-64 sales on top of the huge existing market for x86 hardware AMD hopes to attract ISV interest by establishing a sizable installed base of 64-bit ready hardware. It is aided in this effort, especially with regards to “mom and pop” and open source software operations, by targeting system price points and form factors that Intel and its partners cannot yet meet.

IBM is in the enviable position of being able to place a bet on every contender in the 64 bit horse race. It has an entry of its own, PowerPC, as well as a long standing public commitment to IA64 soon to be realized in a line of mid range servers. It is rumored that it will also be the first major OEM to support x86-64. These rumors are fueled largely by speculation based on IBM’s early port of DB2 to x86-64, and its recently announced joint process technology development agreement with AMD. However big blue is not the monolith of old and its separate divisions are independent business units responsible for their own bottom line. But IBM’s existing architectural diversity suggests it doesn’t value a unified platform strategy nearly as much as other OEMs and would strongly consider testing market interest in x86-64 with re-badged entry level Opteron gear sourced from Newisys.

Unlike IBM, Sun is not in a position to take a wait and see approach. It needs to quickly take some hard decisions to turn its hardware business around. Solaris on SPARC is growing less competitive in cost and performance every day and the only remaining question is whether Sun will transition Solaris to another architecture, or try to sustain it on SPARC as a legacy product line while growing a non-SPARC product line based on Linux. One factor that could affect Sun’s choice of an alternative architecture is the cooperation between IBM and AMD for process development, especially if IBM is forced to take an equity position in AMD to prop it up. If it appears that IBM has co-opted x86-64 it could drive uncommitted OEMs like Sun into Intel’s arms. On the other hand, Sun might regard Intel’s close relationship with HP in IA64 MPU development with suspicion, a factor that also seems to be giving Dell some pause. One factor that might influence Sun’s decision is similarity between IA64 and SPARC. Common architectural characteristics, like overlapping stacked register windows, three address instructions, and large register sets might make it easier for Sun to port Solaris and its associated compilers to IA64 than to x86-64.


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