AMD, Transmeta team against Intel's Itanium

Mike Feibus, an analyst with Mercury Research says a business relationship between AMD and Transmeta makes sense because both compete with Intel.

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Feibus says.

Sharing all 64 bits

AMD's x86-64 technology will first appear in the company's next-generation 64-bit Hammer processors. The first Hammer chip, called ClawHammer, is expected to ship in the second half of 2002. The Hammer family will go head-to-head with Intel's next-generation Itanium chip with its 64-bit IA-64 technology.

While Intel's Itanium chip should still run today's 32-bit programs, it won't offer stellar performance, says Nathan Brookwood, analyst with Insight 64. In fact, an 800-MHz Itanium chip will likely run programs no faster than an 800-MHz Pentium III.

AMD expects its new chips to run both 32-bit and 64-bit programs faster, says Fred Weber, vice president and chief technical officer of AMD's Computation Products Group. AMD processors and Transmeta chips that may use the technology will run today's programs faster than today's best processors.

Insight's Brookwood agrees, and says the advantage of AMD's method is that the company didn't start the chip from scratch like Intel.

"AMD runs 32-bit better," Brookwood says. The company's 64-bit chip was built from the ground up to run 32-bit programs, "instead of creating a new architecture and adding hardware for 32-bit as an afterthought."

Could mean easier migration

Weber says the beauty of this method is that companies and individuals who want to gradually migrate to 64-bit systems don't have to switch over all their programs at once. That's important, because very few programs will actually need 64-bit technology in the near future.

Transmeta's chief technology officer Dave Ditzel puts it even more succinctly: "It's a better approach for 64 bits."

One sticking point for x86-64 remains, however. While Microsoft has already created a 64-bit version of Windows to run on Intel's 64-bit chips, it hasn't made any announcements about a 64-bit version that would work on AMD's Hammer processor. Meanwhile, 32-bit Windows and Windows programs will run anyway. AMD declines to comment on this apparent disparity.

Transmeta's decision to adopt the AMD technology should encourage that direction, as well as bolster development of other programs for the new technology.

It could also mean the new buddy companies could someday end up with competing x86-64 products. Until now, the two haven't offered directly competing products, since Transmeta's main products are low-power notebook processors and AMD offers more high-power chips for desktop and notebooks.

"Realistically, the two will bump heads in the market," analyst Feibus says.

That's okay with both companies, according to executives. "There are areas where we will compete," acknowledges Weber.

HyperTransport hype helps

While both technologies are important, Transmeta's adoption of HyperTransport could help it gain more immediate momentum, says Mercury's Feibus.

Other major companies have already signed on to use HyperTransport, including Broadcom, NVidia, and Sun. The technology will let the chips inside of a PC communicate up to 48 times faster than existing technologies, moving bus speeds from today's typical 266MB per second to 12.8GB per second, Weber says.

Transmeta's Ditzel says his company could have designed its own next-generation interconnect technology, but it liked what it saw with HyperTransport. "Why re-invent the wheel?" he says.

Feibus says with Transmeta jumping on board the HyperTransport bus chip set, vendors will have yet another reason to license and use the technology in their next-generation chips.

With more companies using the same type of chip sets, the quality of those chip sets will go up, and the prices will go down, Ditzel points out. That's good for both customers and manufacturers.

Weber predicts products from other companies using HyperTransport technology will first appear in the second half of this year, and AMD will offer its first products in 2002. Transmeta hasn't announced specific plans to use the technology yet, though it's possible it will appear in brand-new chips the company has planned for 2002.

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Tom Mainelli

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