Not to be upstaged by archrival Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s new Opteron microprocessor, Intel Corp. later this year will upgrade its 64-bit Itanium 2 MPU to run 32-bit x86 programs at about 1.5GHz.
AMD last week introduced its 64-bit Opteron for the server market, touting among other features the chip's ability to run 32-bit x86 code in the 1.4- to 1.8GHz range. Intel said Itanium from its launch about two years ago has always run x86 32-bit programs in native mode, although at an undisclosed slower rate than dedicated 32-bit server processors.
A software upgrade to Itanium, called the IA32 Execution Layer, will be made available in the second half of this year to run the 32-bit code at the same speed as many Intel Xeon processors, said a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara, Calif., company. The new software will emulate the x86 32-bit code to be executed as part of Itanium's 64-bit operation, she said.
The spokeswoman denied that Intel's decision to equip the Itanium 2 with a 32-bit software upgrade had any connection to the 32-bit x86 capability of AMD's Opteron processor. She said Intel has been testing the IA32 Execution Layer for more than a year and that the software
was disclosed at the Intel Developer Forum in February but garnered little press attention.
The pending availability of the software resurfaced last week when Intel went to some lengths to clarify confusion about Itanium's ability to run x86 code in native mode. The spokeswoman said the major focus of Itanium has always been on running 64-bit programs and that 32-bit software capability was a lower priority.
"We offer 32-bit x86 support as a transition to migrate to 64-bit programs, or to run legacy 32-bit programs," she said. "We never intended to make Itanium a 32-bit processor."
The Itanium software upgrade could alleviate any need for a separate 32/64-bit processor for servers. Such a chip has long been rumored to be in development under the name Yamhill, though Intel has never confirmed the existence of the device.
Whatever the strategy Intel is pursuing, when it unveils the 32-bit x86 upgrade there should be less of a distinction between the Itanium and Opteron when it comes to support of legacy operating code. That distinction has been one of the more highly touted features of the AMD chip.
At the Opteron launch last week, executives of the Sunnyvale, Calif., company said the ability of designers to migrate 32-bit x86 programs into a 64-bit processing environment will "rewrite the economics of computing" by opening up what to date has been a largely proprietary market segment.
Backward comptibility with 32-bit x86 code was cited by IBM Corp. last week as a key reason the computer giant is adopting the Opteron for one of its server lines.
"The most powerful benefit of the AMD Opteron technology is the promise to protect an enormously valuable investment in existing 32-bit applications, while providing the ability to smoothly extend into the 64-bit world," said Bill Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive of the IBM Systems group.