HP, which has been moving toward an Intel-only server portfolio since it acquired Compaq two years ago, is considering rolling out AMD Opteron-based systems. The company said it wanted to provide customers with the broadest range of industry-standard products available. HP is expected to use the chips in its ProLiant line of servers, most likely for use initially in high-performance computing environments where strong performance and low cost are important, sources say. It wasn’t clear when the products would be released. "HP acknowledges customer demand for support from a trusted vendor for x86 extensions technology in certain vertical segments where specific price/performance needs exist,” an HP spokesman says. "HP is currently assessing its options in this area." The move would be a strong departure for HP, which co-developed Intel’s 64-bit Itanium chip and has been committed to moving its proprietary 64-bit systems to the industry-standard architecture. Industry observers have doubted that HP would pair up with AMD whose route to 64-bit computing, with its 32/64-bit Opteron chip, diverges from Intel's. The Opteron processor uses the x86 instruction set with 64-bit extensions so that it can run 32- and 64-bit applications simultaneously. Itanium runs 32-bit applications but with performance degradation. However, earlier this month Intel announced the availability of IA-32 Execution Layer software for Itanium systems running Windows, which is said to improve the performance of 32-bit applications. Reports have also circulated that it is considering a similar approach to AMD and may roll out x86 chips with 64-bit extensions. Intel could not immediately be reached for comment on current plans. Meantime, enterprise users are gravitating toward the Opteron alternative. Industry support is also escalating. With HP, AMD would have the backing of three of the four major systems vendors. IBM and Sun have both committed to rolling out Opteron-based systems. IBM introduced its first product, the eServer 325, this past summer, saying that it was an integral part of its Linux clustering offerings. Sun plans to roll out systems this year. Analysts say Dell will likely follow as the chip becomes more widely used. That seems to be happening quickly. AMD unveiled Opteron last spring and, according to IDC, 10,000 servers shipped with the chip in the third quarter last year, compared with just 5,000 Itanium systems during the same period. ISVs are also lining up behind Opteron: both Oracle and IBM have ported their databases to the chip. Opteron supports 64-bit Linux from Red Hat and SuSE, and Microsoft released a beta version of Windows 2003 for Opteron earlier this month. "HP didn’t have any choice," says James Governor, principal analyst at research firm RedMonk. "Any market-driven organisation didn't have any choice. If HP were making its decisions based on religious arguments, then it wouldn't go anywhere near AMD. But if it’s basing it on market reality, it's doing the right thing." As for what the move means for Intel, analysts note that Opteron and Itanium don’t really compete against each other. "In practice, a lot of Opteron's success to date has really been as a better Xeon rather than as a competitor to Itanium or indeed any of the number of 64-bit RISC processors out there," said Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata. "There’s a lot more to Opteron than just 64-bit extensions. It’s got more registers, it’s got integrated HyperTransport, it’s got integrated memory controllers. So there are a lot of things that really boost its performance. A number of its wins in HPC have been as much about its 32-bit performance as about the fact that it’s also 64-bit."