AMD introduced its first Opteron chip 10 years ago today, bringing the x86 processor architecture into the 64-bit world and stealing a march on rival Intel, which was instead pushing Itanium as the way forward.
The launch of the Opteron was a significant step for AMD, which until then had languished as an also-ran trailing behind Intel. Suddenly, the chipmaker had a world-beating processor that started getting attention from server vendors and enterprise buyers, and for a time turned it into a serious rival for Intel in the business market.
Before Opteron, it was clear that the 32-bit x86 architecture was beginning to run out of steam for server and workstation applications. While Intel and AMD had ratcheted up the clock speed of their respective chips to boost performance, workloads were starting to bump up against the restrictions of a 32-bit memory space.
There was no shortage of 64-bit architectures available at the time, including Sun's Sparc and IBM's Power 4, but these were typically used in costly high-end systems, and were not compatible with the Windows applications many enterprises were operating from PC-based servers.
Intel itself had already decided to back the Itanium or IA-64 architecture it co-developed with HP as its path to 64-bit, but this also required new applications to take advantage of its explicitly parallel approach to boosting performance. An x86 emulation mode was provided, but this performed poorly compared with existing systems.
Many industry observers have speculated about Intel's folly in continuing to back the Itanium architecture, even when it became apparent that it was simply not living up to its promise. It is possible that the firm felt it had already poured too much investment into developing the platform to change tack.
Instead, it fell to AMD to take the logical step and simply extend the x86 architecture to include 64-bit instructions, resulting in what the firm called AMD64.
At a stroke, AMD was offering businesses the chance to give a performance boost to existing applications, with a seamless upgrade path to 64-bit software when this became available.
"You just take existing applications from Xeon servers and put them on Opteron servers. Then you move to a 64-bit operating system, and then you move your applications across to it. It's a staged, safe upgrade path; enterprises don't want to do big-bang stuff," said Richard Baker, AMD's European marketing manager at the time.
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