Intel to boost 32-bit application handling by Itanium 2

The next generation of Intel Corp. Itanium 2 processors will get an upgrade meant to improve their performance running 32-bit enterprise applications.

A new IA-32 execution software layer will be ready in the second half of the year as part of a "natural evolution for 32-bit support on Itanium," said Intel spokesman Scott McGlaughlin. The software execution layer has been under development for several years as the processors have evolved, he said, and it was a topic of discussion at the Intel Developers Forum earlier this year.

McGlaughlin said the new software is in validation testing and will be ready for the next version of Itanium 2, code-named Madison. The software code is expected to allow 32-bit applications running on Itanium 2 to have performance on par with an Intel 32-bit Xeon 1.5-GHz MP processor, he said. McGlaughlin acknowledged that the company has heard complaints about 32-bit application performance under Itanium 2 CPUs and is responding.

"Certainly Intel, through its normal development process, will improve performance," he said.

Most Intel customers have been saying that when they're ready to go to 64-bit processors, they'll be moving ahead with 64-bit applications, McGlaughlin said. A major reason for incorporating the upcoming emulation layer is to allow customers to continue to use old 32-bit applications that haven't yet been ported to 64-bit use.

Intel said Itanium processors already run 32-bit applications natively, but analysts and others have said that the real-world performance hasn't been awe-inspiring, according to Rich Partridge, an analyst at D.H. Brown & Associates Inc. "It runs, but does it run fast enough to satisfy you?" he said. "It won't necessarily run at speed."

By announcing the software upgrade, Intel is moving "to address what is perceived to be a problem," Partridge said. "The perception is that the current hardware (support) for 32-bit applications on Itanium 2 doesn't give full performance."

Instead, the chips are engineered to work best with the new generation of 64-bit applications that are beginning to make their way onto the market.

However, that has apparently opened a marketing opportunity for Intel competitor Advanced Micro Devices Inc., which released its new Opteron 64-bit server processor line this week. The new Opteron CPUs allow users to run new 64-bit applications and older 32-bit applications, which will run at speeds comparable to their performance on older x86 32-bit hardware or faster, according to the company.

Charles King, an analyst at Sageza Group Inc. in Mountain View, Calif., said Intel's move to improve 32-bit performance on Itanium is particularly notable since it comes during the week of the Opteron launch.

"That probably woke them up a little bit," King said of positive reaction to the new and flexible AMD line in the marketplace. "...I think Intel is going to be perceived ... (as) trying to play catch-up or basically trying to salvage what may have been a PR coup on AMD's part."

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Todd R. Weiss

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