AMD looks for Opteron apps in the year ahead

Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) will be celebrating the one-year anniversary of its 64-bit Opteron processor with a birthday party at the Rainbow Room in New York City this Thursday. But while company executives look back on the last twelve months' progress, the year ahead may prove to be a more crucial time for the upstart processor.

When AMD launched Opteron in April 2003 it represented a departure from Intel Corp.'s approach to 64-bit computing. While Intel had been pushing a brand new 64-bit instruction set for its Itanium processor, AMD chose instead to extend Intel's existing IA-32 instruction set with its AMD64 design. This allowed AMD to build processors that took advantage of the larger system memory and superior performance of 64-bit computing, but which could still run existing 32-bit applications.

Intel initially rejected this approach, but in February this year it capitulated by announcing that it, too, would extend its IA-32 instruction set to support 64-bit computing, with its Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T). Intel's EM64T chips are expected to begin shipping later this year. AMD64 and EM64T processors are expected to be able to run the same software.

In its first year, Opteron has established itself as a platform for high-performance computing, but it has yet to develop a serious foothold running the type of packaged applications associated with enterprise computing. Part of the reason is that only a limited number of enterprise applications have been written to take advantage of AMD's (and Intel's) 64-bit extensions to IA-32.

"Today, if you are really interested in a 64-bit operating system and a 64-bit database, your choices are Linux, with either DB2 or Computer Associates' Ingres. That's it," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with the research company Insight 64.

Oracle Corp. has released a developer version of its database that supports AMD's 64-bit extensions, and is expected to make a production version generally available within the next few months. The open source database MySQL already supports 64-bit x86 systems. Microsoft plans to support the 64-bit processors with the next release of its SQL Server database, code named Yukon, in the first half of 2005.

Now that Intel has announced plans to follow in AMD's footsteps, a wider selection of ISVs (independent software vendors) appear to be taking the idea of porting their applications to 64-bit x86 systems seriously.

"After the Intel announcement in February, I think a lot of customers woke up and said, 'This is the way we're going to do 64-bit (computing) over the next couple of years,'" said Michael Mullany, vice president of marketing with VMware Inc., a subsidiary of EMC Corp. Those customers are now asking ISVs like VMware about their plans for 64-bit operating system support, he said.

On Monday, VMware will announce plans to support 64-bit versions of both Intel's and AMD's x86 processors with its VMware Workstation, GSX and ESX products.

The company's engineers began working on a 64-bit version of their product about three years ago, Mullany said, originally with Intel's Itanium processor in mind. But sales of Itanium systems have not been high enough to warrant a 64-bit product, and with Intel's February announcement, VMware decided to instead follow the x86 path with its first 64-bit product.

VMware's three products will fully support 64-bit x86 processors within 18 months, starting with the next update to VMware workstation, version 4.5, which is expected by the end of June.

Database and virtualization software are important parts of the growing portfolio of applications for 64-bit x86 systems, but the most important pieces of software are the Linux and Windows operating systems, said Margaret Lewis, a software strategy manager with AMD. "The number one app that needs to be running 64-bit on your machine is the operating system," she said.

And the most notable hole in 64-bit x86 support is Windows, which is scheduled to support both Opteron and Intel's EM64T in the second half of this year. This release will have a major impact on the adoption of Opteron, Lewis said, because it will provide a 64-bit platform for ISVs, but also because it will improve the performance of 32-bit applications running on Windows.

For example, a 64-bit version of Microsoft Terminal Server -- a core component of Windows used for remotely accessing Windows servers -- should noticeably improve the performance of applications like Citrix Systems Inc.'s MetaFrame presentation server, which will benefit from the improved memory support in a 64-bit version of Windows, she said.

Weather.com is looking forward to the 64-bit version of Windows for similar reasons, said Dan Agronow, vice president of technology with the The Weather Channel's Web site.

The company already has six IBM Corp. eServer 325 Opteron-based servers running its weather database, and plans to evaluate 64-bit x86 systems from Intel and AMD for use with Anystream Inc.'s Agility media software, which it is running on Windows. Weather.com would probably continue to run a 32-bit version of the Anystream software, but is looking at doing a 64-bit port of an in-house encoding application that works with Agility, Agronow said.

"Because it's such a memory-intensive application for encoding video, we see an advantage with 64-bit," he said.

Weather.com's database runs on a 32-bit version of SuSE Linux, but the company is evaluating a move to 64 bits, Agronow said. "We see Opteron as giving us another option for increasing our capacity," he said. Depending on the company's internal testing, it could move to a 64-bit version of Linux running MySQL by the third quarter this year, he said.

Still, AMD has work ahead as it tries to bring Opteron to the enterprise.

SAP AG, BEA Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp. , for example, have made no statement of support for the Opteron processor with their Java application servers, according to Lewis, and while IBM plans to support the chips with an upcoming release of WebSphere, it has not committed to a specific date, she said.

There is also a lot of software that simply would not benefit from a 64-bit port, Lewis said. Management software like Hewlett-Packard Co.'s OpenView or IBM's Tivoli, for example, would gain little by moving from 32-bit systems, she said.

AMD's biggest challenge, however, may be Intel itself, whose EM64T processors will have begun to appear in systems by the time the 64-bit x86 version of Windows ships. The first EM64T chip, a dual-processor Xeon code named Nocona, is expected within the next few months. Intel is also planning a 64-bit version of its multiprocessor Xeon MP chips in 2005.

AMD has the advantage of having been first to market with Opteron. It has a window of opportunity in which to sell 64-bit chips to x86 users while Intel plays catch-up. But customers like Weather.com's Agronow will be taking a serious look at Nocona and its successors. "If I had a comparable box between Intel and AMD, I would probably choose Intel," he said. "I'm more comfortable with the brand; I'm more comfortable with the support."

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