Microsoft will reap the spoils of the AMD-Intel chip wars

The success of OPMA or x64 CPUs means success for Redmond

It's like two big dogs fighting over a bone while a little dog sits by watching as it happily gnaws on the prize. Of course, in this case, the little dog is actually just as big as the other two, if not bigger, and the bone really isn't just one bone; it's … hell, I'm no good at similes.

But it is a mite entertaining to watch Intel and AMD chase one another's pile of gold while Microsoft sits on the sidelines, poised to gain no matter which chipmaker prevails. In recent years, power users looking for value muscle have taken AMD very seriously while leaving their server purchases largely in the hands of Intel. AMD is seeking to change that with this week's announcement of Open Platform Management Architecture (OPMA). Intel, meanwhile, is busy chasing AMD's power user customers with its release of an x64-compatible Pentium 4 series of chips.

The Intel Pentium 4 6xx chips series will run between 3.2GHz and 3.6GHz with a roomy 2MB of L2 cache and will even offer compatibility with the x64 CPUs engineered by AMD. There's also the dorkily named Extreme Edition CPU that will run at 3.73GHz. Intel is promising to convert even its cheaper Celery -- I mean Celeron -- line of CPUs to x64 by the end of the year.

For those who don't know, the x64 architecture allows compatibility with new 64-bit software and OS platforms while retaining backward compatibility with 32-bit software and hardware. Intel's previous 64-bit candidate, Itanium, lacked this capability and subsequently got left behind like Macaulay Culkin  on a Christmas vacation. Power freaks and corporate workstation purchasers will now have a real choice when it comes to 64-bit workstation computing, but the real happy camper is Redmond, which is set to release Windows XP Professional x64 Edition in the next few weeks.

I had a chance to see an RC2 version of XP Pro x64 running at the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory (ANCL) testing facility, and for the most part, you'll find it looks and runs similarly to the 32-bit version. But as we've seen with every previous shift in computing bit power, the heartaches only start with hardware. They end up with software. Without true 64-bit support among Microsoft's ISV community, 64-bit workstation computing really won't get you much in the way of tangible performance increases and will, in fact, spawn some not-so-minor headaches out of the gate.

An example that I expect to be fixed by the time that XP Pro x64 ships: Only the core version of IE runs properly within the OS. Any of the plug-ins that your users may have installed at present don't run. We also had to take it off an Internet-accessible segment because we can't get any anti-virus solutions to run properly. Again, however, this is RC-level code, so I'm hoping to see a whole bunch of fixes in the shipping code coming in a month or so.

Meanwhile, AMD seems tired of being just the overlord of the power workstation and super-gamer crowd. The company has set its sights on the server market in a big way with the release of the OPMA specification. That awkward mouthful now defines a common hardware interface between the server and its hardware subsystem management components, including server management controller cards, NICs, and even the system busses running between sensors and the servers' CPUs. 

The technology benefits of the new specification are good, including increased management functionality, even at the software level, and better system manageability with less adverse effect on overall system performance, and on BIOS performance in particular. Question is, coming from AMD, can OPMA compete with the King Kong of server gorillas that Intel has become?

Again, I think the answer is less related to CPU hardware than it is to software support. If server management vendors, and especially a certain server operating system vendor from the rainy Northwest, decide to support OPMA with tangible features in existing products, then OPMA will become a viable criteria in server purchasing -- although still not as popular as Intel for quite some time. But without that critical third-party software support, OPMA will wind up as solitary as Itanium in a very short time.

For Microsoft, though, the news means all smiles. Both OPMA and Intel's new x64 CPUs simply mean better software sales for Redmond, as long as the company gets its act together on XP Pro x64's compatibility issues. The headaches are reserved for us when it comes time for testing, purchasing, and implementation.

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