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64-bits are coming! 64-bits are coming! Ho-hum.

Intel’s new Itanium chip puts us two years closer to 64-bit nirvana. Enterprise Pursuit Nelson King 5/29/01 64-bits are coming! 64-bits are coming! Ho-hum. Intel’s new Itanium chip puts us within reach of 64-bit nirvana.

About the time this column appears, Intel will launch Itanium, its first 64-bit processor. I can hear the cheer ringing out across the land–whoop de do. I can also remember more than 15 years ago when the first talk of 64-bithood for personal computers began. At that time people were in awe of the development of the microprocessor because, after all, 64-bit processing was what mainframes did. A 64-bit chip meant, with some exaggeration, that ordinary people would have a mainframe computer sitting on their desks.

Even back then, some people wondered why we needed the equivalent of a mainframe computer to run word processing. Some still do. Graphic artists and gamers, however, have no question about the need for as much computing power as they can get. I don’t consider uses like these trivial; however, that’s generally not the opinion of most IT departments. If they have their eyes on Itanium at all, it’s precisely because there is the potential to offload some mainframe-style computing into much cheaper servers.

Personally I think the fact that it took Intel seven years to produce Itanium is significant for (at least) two reasons: The task of designing and producing the chip was very difficult, and the pressure to finish it, though great, was not considered “make or break” by Intel. These two factors worked together. Intel wanted to get the chip right. No sneaky bugs or unsuspected hardware incompatibilities. They also wanted to build it in a way that would make money. Since nobody was yelling and screaming at their door for immediate delivery, Intel took the time (it is hoped) to do what it really needed to do.

Meanwhile, among the enterprise IT shops of the land, patience for a 64-bit Intel microprocessor was not hard to come by. After all, if the enterprise was really in need of big-time computing power, it probably already had mainframes. High-powered workstations and specialized servers can count on a variety of 64-bit RISC computers from the likes of Sun, HP, and IBM. Sure, IT will be a happy day to save money with Itanium servers, but there’s one big piece of this 64-bit saga that has yet to be written–most of the software.

In theory an Intel (or should I say Wintel?) chip opens the door to a vast world of relatively inexpensive Windows-based software. Therein lies most of the potential savings, even if savings is realized from competition among the hardware manufacturers. Of course, the software must start with the operating system. A 64-bit Unix will be available, and with it most of the current crop of proprietary 64-bit software that is already in place. Microsoft will also debut a 64-bit version of Windows XP, but in a sense this will be a kind of version 1.0, and everyone knows Microsoft’s 1.0 track record.

Even when (or if) the Microsoft OS platform becomes available, stable, and reliable, it will still take years for most of the software important to IT to be adapted for the 64-bit processor. Until then, we’ll see the same incongruities and lack of performance we encountered a few years ago with 16-bit software on the current generation of 32-bit processors.

The good news is that during this gap, the processor itself will make some necessary improvements as well as pass through the shakedown period. At the speed of its initial release, 733MHz and 800MHz, Itanium hardly looks like a barnburner. However, if preliminary benchmarks hold up, the chip’s floating-point prowess is considerable–perhaps the best in the microprocessor business. This is good news for scientific and engineering applications. Intel has already announced the next version of Itanium (dubbed McKinley), which will double clock speeds and begin to put the chip in more direct competition with the RISC processors.

So there is something to cheer about, or at least a modest huzzah. Itanium will–eventually–be serious competition for existing 64-bit hardware. Substantial savings may be on the horizon. It won’t hurt for corporate IT people to begin watching the development of the Intel 64-bit chips and the availability of software, and at some point in the next two years the time to start bargaining will arrive.

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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