Microsoft, Sun looking at AMD Opteron

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Microsoft announced this morning that it will support AMD's upcoming 64-bit AMD Opteron and AMD Athlon 64 microprocessors with native 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003 and Windows XP, ending months of speculation about how the company will address AMD's new hardware. Microsoft says it will issue beta releases of these products by mid-year. "We are pleased to help usher in a new era of business value by extending our ongoing investment in 64-bit computing to the AMD platform," said Brian Valentine, senior vice president of Microsoft's Windows Division. "Microsoft's 64-bit Windows operating systems represent an inflection point leading to higher performance and greater efficiency for businesses and consumers."

Microsoft isn't alone in its support for AMD's 64-bit designs. After Sun Microsystems released a new, security-centered version of its UNIX OS for Intel x86 and compatible systems this week, the company admitted that it might soon adopt the AMD Opteron as well. Sun's Trusted Solaris system, which has been available for years on the company's high-end SPARC hardware, has been ported to Intel-based servers. After almost abandoning x86-compatible systems a year ago, Sun is suddenly back in force on the x86, and its expected move to the 64-bit, x86-compatible AMD Opteron could open up a new round of competition with Intel's 64-bit design, the Itanium family.

Unlike their counterparts at Microsoft, Sun executives aren't yet ready to make a public announcement about AMD Opteron adoption. But in a discussion with "CNET" this week, Sun Vice President of Operating Platforms Groups John Loiacono said that talks between the two companies are progressing. "Can we commit to using Opteron today? No." Loiacono said. "Are we likely to use it? Yes."

Microsoft's announcement is the culmination of years of work by original Windows NT architect David Cutler, who is one of the AMD chip's biggest fans. Cutler has been working on 64-bit versions of Windows since at least 1998, when the platform of choice was Digital's Alpha chip. But Cutler's coworkers say the system architect prefers the AMD Opteron, which provides 100 percent compatibility with the Intel x86 line, to the Itanium, which provides a slower, emulated x86 environment for backward compatibility.

Systems such as the 64-bit Itanium and AMD Opteron won't offer an immediate performance boost over 32-bit designs such as the Pentium. But the Itanium, especially, offers better scalability and support for the massive amounts of RAM required for in-memory databases and scientific and engineering calculations. The AMD Opteron's primary benefit, in the short run, will be complete compatibility with today's applications and hardware, combined with larger memory capacity and other system resources.

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