The Battle in 64 bit Land: Merchant Chips on the Rise

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This is the fourth article in a series that that started in 2000 with The Looming Battle in 64 bit Land, followed up with The Battle in 64 bit Land Revisited in 2001 and The Battle in 64 bit Land, 2003 and Beyond, in 2003.

Spring Thaw

After years of contraction and spending declines in the high end server and technical workstation market, the first signs of a full fledged recovery were seen in the second half of 2003. According to Gartner, third quarter sales of servers rose 20% year over year. The accelerating recovery in the IT sector was strong enough to lift world wide server sales in 2003 to over 5 million systems, worth about $50B according to IDC estimates. Although computers based on 64 bit RISC and mainframe processors comprised only about 10% of servers sold these typically large scale systems accounted for over half of server revenues or about $28B last year. The remaining 90% of servers shipped, worth about $22B, were 32 bit x86 based systems powered by Intel Xeon and Pentium 4 processors.

The most important events in the 64 bit universe since my last article have largely been outside the technical arena. Clearly, the overriding story is the rapid pace at which merchant 64 bit MPUs are making inroads into the once insular and exclusive world of proprietary processors running within closed platforms. Intel’s IPF architecture gained significant traction, selling over 100,000 Itanium 2 processors in 2003. While this is remarkable by itself, consider that the vast majority of these chips were 130nm Madison based parts, introduced mid year.

Much more unpredictable was the broad industry support AMD garnered for its AMD64 architecture and associated Opteron server chip. IBM, Sun, and HP have announced products based on the new 64 bit x86 MPU. AMD64 even got grudging support from an unexpected quarter, it’s arch-rival across the highway. At its February developer’s forum, Intel announced that it would support a 64 bit ISA extension effectively compatible with AMD64 in its future x86 products. Besides the obvious effect on the future x86 server market, this also sets the stage for the start of a long and very drawn out transition of the PC market from 32 to 64 bits beginning when Microsoft releases a 64 bit mainstream version of Windows, possibly late this year.

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