Will Microsoft be Whistling the 64-bit Blues?

Intel’s64-bit Itanium processor has experienced a number of frustrating delays, andthey may not be over. Prospective users could experience further delays once itcomes to market. It appears Microsoft will lag in both workstation and a serveroperating systems that take advantage of the chip.

“The firstversion of the Windows operating system to support the IA-64 platform will bethe Whistler release,” says Michael Stephenson, lead product manager atMicrosoft. “Both [client and server versions] will be available in the secondhalf of 2001,” he says. Intel says it plans to release the Itanium IA-64processor in the first half of 2001.

While“first half” and “second half” can mean a difference of one to 11 months, thepossibility of Intel releasing its next generation chip with no supportingWindows operating system is beginning to look very real.

Stephenson,however, says there should be little lag time between the Itanium and Whistlerreleases. “We’re working closely with Intel for the Itanium rollout,” he says.

Microsofthas changed its tune regarding its IA-64 plans. At the Windows 2000 DatacenterServer Technical Workshop in August 2000, Jim Ewel, vice president ofmarketing, IT infrastructure and hosting, laid out Microsoft’s operating systemroadmap. He said that after Datacenter Server, "The next release is ourWindows 64-bit edition. That is a product that will ship with Intel's Itaniumchip. We're really being gated there by being able to ship when they have thehardware ready." If Microsoft is holding off on IA-64 support with Whistler,it will ship sometime after Itanium hits the market.

Ewel alsoindicated that there would be a 64-bit version of Windows released beforeWhistler. In July 2000, Microsoft released to developers a beta version ofWindows 2000 supporting IA-64 to enable developers to write for Windows 2000.In a statement, Ewel said, “The 64-bit Windows platform is a native 64-bitoperating system based on Windows 2000." Microsoft now asserts that the64-bit plans have centered on Whistler.

An Intelspokesman says Intel plans to make a “platform release” of Itanium in the firsthalf of 2001. Itaniums are already in the hands of OEMs and select OEMcustomers for testing and evaluation, but Itanium will not be publiclyavailable for production environments until the platform release in the firsthalf of next year. Itanium could hit the market six months to a year beforeWindows supports the processor.

Like IA-64Windows, Itanium has had its share of delays, with Intel pushing back therelease several times since the product was announced. Intel, however, isfirmly stating that Itanium is in full “pilot release” and nearly ready to hitthe market, once OEMs finalize their platforms.

NathanBrookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, says the lengths Intel has gone to getcustomers to preview machines demonstrates that it is chomping at the bit torelease Itanium. “There’s like 50,000 of those machines out there -- this isnot a minor undertaking,” he says.

If Itaniumgoes to market before a 64-bit version of Windows, it will hardly be anorphaned chip with no operating system. The IA-64 Linux Project, formerly knownas the Trillian Project, released source code in February and has performedmodifications and bug fixes since then. When Itanium is generally released,users will have a version of Linux that will run on the 64-bit chip.

OEMs alreadyanticipate Linux interest for IA-64. Both Dell and Compaq are preparing for theIA-64’s introduction early next year by offering select customers Linux-basedtest systems.

Compaq opened anIA-64 section on its new technologies test drive Web site. The site allowsmembers to test legacy code and development work on an IA-64 ProLiant Serversitting behind a firewall.

Matti Virtanen,vice president for worldwide distribution channels at Compaq, said on thecompany’s Web site that "The Test Drive Web site is one of the first tooffer public access to an IA-64 system running Linux."

A number of Dellcustomers are using pilot IA-64-based PowerEdge servers in real-worldenvironments, running mySAP.com and the IBM DB2 database to test theprocessor’s capabilities. All their servers are using the Linux OS.

“A lot ofcustomers are going to be forced into Linux solutions, and that’s not inMicrosoft’s interest,” Brookwood says. Although enterprises might wait for theWindows server operating system, a lag of a few quarters could tempt someadministrators to make a change in plans. “If Microsoft doesn’t do that and theLinux community goes there, it could be something that doesn’t work toMicrosoft’s advantage,” Brookwood says of the Linux threat. “That just doesn’tsound like a real coherent plan here,” he says.

Brookwoodsays the delay in Windows servers could present a problem for both Microsoftand Intel. “The fact that Microsoft has no support for Itanium would clearlyretard the IA-64 market,” Brookwood says. Although Intel has opened specs toany interested developers, including the Linux community, to ensure that thereare multiple operating systems for Itanium, Intel depends on Microsoft to supportthe new architecture. Brookwood believes Windows users constitute a major chunkof the potential Itanium user base.

Inaddition, Microsoft is planning a staggered release of Whistler operatingsystems. Redmond will first release 32- and 64-bit versions of Whistler for thedesktop, then follow with server versions 90 days later. While Windowsworkstations may be available soon after the Itanium release, Windows serversmay be slow in coming.

“Theprincipal vision for Intel is server, rather than workstation,” Brookwood says.If Microsoft only supports Itanium as a workstation, it may impede Intel’splans to compete with higher end server vendors such as Sun Microsystems. “Thebig area for IA-64 is database servers,” he says. “Having a 64-bit environmentfor databases is a huge winner.” Microsoft’s delay in providing an operatingsystem for IA-64 servers could put a crimp in Intel’s plans.

IA-64 isnot the only 64-bit architecture on the horizon. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)has plans to release its own 64-bit processor, Hammer, in 2001. Hammer has adifferent architecture than Itanium; it retains the x86 instruction set thatIntel introduced at the dawn of the PC era.

Microsofthas not made any decisions on whether to support the Hammer architecture, Stephensonsays.

Brookwoodsays support for the Hammer architecture is not as critical for Microsoft andAMD as support for the IA-64 is for Microsoft and Intel. “Hammer is a good32-bit machine, while Itanium is not a good 32-bit machine,” he says.

Because Hammerstill uses the x86 instruction set, it can operate in 32-bit mode withperformance as good or better than a similarly clocked 32-bit chip. Itaniummust emulate x86 instructions and takes a huge performance hit in 32-bit mode.Brookwood points to Microsoft’s delay in supporting Intel’s 32-bit architectureas proof that it will not suffer from no 64-bit Hammer support. “For many yearsMicrosoft did not support Intel’s 32-bit extensions for the x86 architecture,”he says. “That took 10 years.”

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., www.microsoft.com
Intel Corp., Palo Alto, Calif., www.intel.com
Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, www.compaq.com
Dell Computer Corp., Austin, www.dell.com