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AMD Athlon 64 : AMD64 technology - Getting acquainted
The prelude to a new processor launch is something that entertains readers and journalists alike, and the Athlon 64 is no different. The interesting aspect is that we already have the core technology 'out in the open', in the form of Opteron that was launched earlier this year. Whilst the Opteron, a 64-bit processor brings some very interesting features to the server workspace the core feature, 64-bit processing, is nothing new in servers. The Athlon 64 however, will bring this technology to desktop machines, an arena that has yet to experience this technology. Today we'll look at the core technology present in the Athlon 64, AMD64 architecture as it aims to revolutionize the desktop workspace.

We said AMD intend to revolutionize the desktop market, AMD64, the architecture at the heart of Athlon 64 is more evolutionary, and that's where its strength lies. There are many problems associated with just moving over to 64-bit processing and without overcoming these; the Athlon 64 would face serious problems.
  • Just offering 64bit functionality will render current 32-bit applications useless. This is a major problem if your favourite application doesn't have a 64bit version. A limited software support means limited functionality for the CPU in the wider marketplace, something that no CPU manufacturer wants with their product.

  • Operating system support. Without a supporting operating system, even if there were thousands of 64-bit compatible applications the CPU is dead in the water. This is probably the most important link in the chain.

  • Moving a large batch of users over to new software. A greater concern to corporate customers, is the ability to move large amounts of systems over to a particular version of say, a word processing application or email software. The problem lies with whether these individual pieces of software support both the 64-bit processor and operating system.
  • Although importance of these problems differ slightly, solutions to all are required should AMD want to conquer the desktop market. Thankfully, AMD and the Athlon 64 have covered their bases.

    AMD's strategy is simple, make sure the product they produce is usable with the current software that is available, in the hope that users will realize the advantages of 64-bit computing in the future and see the Athlon 64 as an investment not only just a fast processor. The Athlon 64's greatest asset is the ability to run 32-bit applications without the user requiring to recompile the application. And as things stand, it is this asset that will be required in the Athlon 64's infancy.

    There are a number of ways in which you can get 32-bit applications to run on a 64-bit system. One of these is to put a so-called 32-bit 'co-processor'. Unisys produces machines that have both Intel Itanium CPUs alongside Xeon units to enable users to get the best of both worlds. Intel's Itanium CPU, through utilizing a different architecture only supports 64-bit programs that have to be compiled through Intel compilers should they want to operate on that processor.

    This isn't a major problem for the Itanium due to where Intel are pitching the expensive behemoth. The Itanium is a high-end server product, designed for very specific applications such as large scale relational databases, simulation modelling and general high performance computing (HPC) tasks. Secondly Intel has spent millions of Dollars on promoting the Itanium platform and working with vendors such as SAP, Network Associates, Vertitas and SAS to produce software specifically for the Itanium. This is possible mainly because the number of applications that Itanium implementations have to run varies little.

    In a desktop environment the roles are reversed. Any CPU will have to function with the vast majority of software that's currently available, for two main reasons.
  • No software, results in a useless product. When people buy computers, they want to do everything they can think of with their new machine. If the software isn't available they won't purchase a computer based on that particular architecture.

  • Time to port software. Although we said that Intel have spent millions on working with big-name software vendors, it took them months and in some cases, years to get software ported to their IA64 (Itanium) platform. Intel admit that until these applications became available, demand for Itanium was minimal relative to today. AMD's strategy is that their "way" of doing things will allow people to use their current 32-bit software with new 64-bit applications, and not be forced to purchase new software or wait for applications to be ported over. AMD wants the industry to move over to 64-bit "at their own pace".
  • The second point is especially important for AMD. Whilst Intel can afford to spend tens of millions on supporting developers in producing software that will arrive in six months time, AMD can't afford that long. Make no mistake, AMD aren't a poor little company that has to send employees out to the Underground stations busking for change, and Jerry Sanders famously once said, "Only real men have fabs." To build a "fab" or fabrication plant costs billions of Dollars, not something you amass from playing the violin outside the Elephant and Castle. The problem for AMD is the desktop space is their bread and butter. Without it, a large portion of their income has vanished.

    Another way of having 32-bit compatibility is emulation. The major drawback is performance. Having to run extra processes running can result in severe performance penalties the scale of which may result in a big step backwards.

    Just because AMD will be launching a 64-bit processor later this month won't mean that come October the computer world will forget all about 32-bit. For a while the vast majority of software running on an Athlon 64 will be 32-bit, and so severe performance penalties or incompatibility problems simply can't be part of the equation, and AMD have made sure it won't.

    In order to maintain compatibility, AMD have stuck with an architecture that has been with us for so many years we hardly mention it anymore, x86. Instead of leaving this "old technology" to die, AMD has embraced it to produce a processor that not only brings in new technology, it still has bits of the old. Through using x86 architecture we still find many of the bad bits that engineers at Intel and AMD have been trying to work around, but the added advantage is that the Athlon 64 can run 16, 32 and 64-bit applications without any causing any trouble.