John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · 16 December 2003
64-bit Computing Heats Up
Last month I wrote about the hidden potential behind 64-bit computing. In the last few weeks the Opteron has really been blooming. Chips, boards and servers have been walking briskly out the door. AMD is very happy. On the other hand Intel's Itanium chip, aka the Itanic, has been sinking fast. Intel can't give it away.

I remember two years I was working for a company that shared office space with a GUI toolkit shop that wrote linux drivers among other things and therefore had been given an Itanium server by Intel. Man, that thing was as popular as a leper at a Twister party. The only time I saw anyone near it was when they were trying to fix it. They could not write drivers for it because it didn't work in a very low-level kind of way.

Supposedly there are people out there now with working Itaniums but adoption is non-existent largely because it is not backwards compatible with 32-bit applications. Intel took the bizarre view that 64-bit was the future, 32-bit was history and the whole market would move with them to 64-bit. Since Doom is about the only program compiled for 64-bit the Itanium does not really have a purpose in life. It will be interesting to see if Intel just kills it or boards it up in the attic like a crazy aunt. For now they all have forced smiles on their faces and are throwing parties where they have declared 2003 as the "Year of the Itanium". How is that for surreal?

The Opteron on the other hand has native support for 32-bit applications and a lot of other interesting features. For example, it has serial bus that in some ways outperforms the standard parallel architectures. Also, it has 16 registers. It runs relatively cool also which is significant. It seems these days like you need to stuff a refrigerator in the box to cool high-end cpus down. Heat sinks are sporting more chrome than a '56 Thunderbird. You may have laughed when you heard about the water-cooled mainframes from the 1970s. Don't look now but water-cooled PCs are just around the corner.

64-Bit is Good for Linux and Open Source

An interesting side effect of the 64-bit movement is the benefit it is having for Linux and open source projects. The multiple linux distributions are reacting in a more nimble way to encorporating 64-bit support while Windows has lagged. The same thing is true for software. Open source projects tend to have much more frequent release schedules than commercial software so 64-bit compiles are correspondingly more common. In some cases users are even making 64-bit builds themselves and not even waiting for official releases. This is widening the performance gap between open source and shrink wrap, especially Windows-based shrink wrap. Take Doom/Quake/Unreal (DQU ? QUD? DUQ? Unquoom?) for example. Serious players do not even consider running these FPSs on win boxen anymore because the performance gap has gotten so large.

64-Bit Encroaches on the High End

Now that Opteron is running free, performance gains are going to sweep into the high end. In the old days (ie two years ago) high-end systems featured special crossbar buses that allowed more CPUs than would be possible on PCI architectures, but AMD has devised a new memory access design it calls "SUMO". This design essentially puts a crossbar switch inside the chip and then uses asynchronous, serial IO to make the memory requests instead of the usual parallel bus. Intel also is developing specialized memory architectures like "PAT". These innovative approaches are going to kill whatever vestige of an advantage high-performance systems from Sun/HP/IBM had. These makers better move to Opteron now or they are going to get totally obsoleted in a year or two. They are staring down a barrel where a kid with a few thousand dollars can put together a system that outperforms million-dollar Sun Fire systems.

The writing is on the wall Scott you need to get out of the workstation business now.

Developer Diary · · bio · Revised 16 December 2003 · Pure Content