10 April 2003 Software giant Microsoft has reaffirmed its support for Advanced Micro Devices’ (AMD) forthcoming Athlon64 and Opteron families of 64-bit microprocessors, which will be formally launched on 22 April.
The announcement follows speculation that Microsoft might be preparing to renege on an earlier agreement to support AMD. Without Microsoft’s support, AMD would have had to rely on software from the open source community to drive sales of its innovative new chip families.
Opteron and Athlon64 represent a particular threat to Intel’s hegemony in the desktop and server marketplace because unlike Intel’s 64-bit Itanium family of microprocessors, AMD’s alternatives offer backwards compatibility with software developed for 32-bit Intel-compatible chips.
With Itanium, backwards compatibility is only available in software emulation, which has been criticised as too slow. Intel took a decision early in the design process not to provide native 32-bit compatibility in a bid to help simplify an already complicated design.
Microsoft will launch 64-bit versions of Windows XP for the desktop, Windows Server 2003 and the SQL Server database optimised for AMD?s new chips. Microsoft will compete with Linux distributors MandrakeSoft, Red Hat and SuSE, which already have working versions of the open source operating system running on Athlon64 and Opteron.
Furthermore, IBM has already ported its DB2 database and Oracle and Computer Associates with Ingres are expected to follow suit.
Athlon64 and Opteron are essentially the same, but Athlon64 is aimed at the PC and workstation market, while Opteron is designed for multi-processor servers. Athlon64 is particularly eagerly awaited by enthusiasts who want to be among the first to boast 64-bit power on their home computers.
There are also a number of signs that Unix systems vendor Sun Microsystems is considering a shift from its proprietary Sparc microprocessor over to AMD’s Opteron, as the company recognises that the costs of developing and supporting its own chip designs are becoming increasingly untenable.
A shift to Opteron would give Sun CEO Scott McNealy a graceful exit from Sparc, without having to go cap-in-hand to Intel. “I’d bet on Opteron before I’d bet on Itanium,” McNealy said in an interview earlier this week.
John Loiacono, vice president of Sun’s operating platforms group, has gone further. “Can we commit to using Opteron today? No. Can we use it? Are we likely to use it” Yes,” Loiacono told CNet News.