Intel and Microsoft have released software designed to improve the performance of Windows applications designed for 32-bit processors when they are running on Intel's 64-bit Itanium 2 processors.

Several years in development, the IA-32 Execution Layer (EL) software is slated for inclusion in Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 1, which is expected in the second half of this year. But it can now be downloaded for Window Server 2003 Enterprise Edition, Windows Server 2003 Datacenter Edition, and Windows XP 64-bit Edition.

Linux versions of the IA-32 EL are also expected later this year from SuSE Linux and Red Hat Linux.

The new software will let 32-bit applications run at 50 to 60 percent the speed of their 64-bit equivalents on Itanium processors. This means that, for example, an Itanium system that scored a SPECint base benchmark of 1300, running a 64-bit version of the benchmark software, would score approximately 700 running a 32-bit version with the IA-32 EL software.

Intel plans to improve the IA-32 EL's performance until it approaches 70 percent of Itanium's 64-bit performance, said Mike Fister, the senior vice president and general manager of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group. But it was unlikely the software could improve performance beyond that, he said.

Even with the new software, Itanium processors still lag behind their Xeon cousins when it comes to 32-bit performance. The fastest Itanium processors available can run 32-bit applications at the rate of a 1.5GHz Xeon processor, Intel said. The fastest Xeon currently available operates at 3.2GHz.

While Intel's rival, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) has made much of the 32-bit performance of its 64-bit Opteron processors, Fister said that breadth of the Itanium product line, and not 32-bit performance, would be the key to Itanium's success. But, he conceded, the importance of 32-bit performance applications was increasing. "As time moves along, especially as people have deployed Itanium servers, they'll say, 'Hey, it would be more efficient if I could run that 32-bit application on an Itanium server," he said.

As Itanium servers become available in lower-power configurations and at less expensive prices, more of the computer market will begin to cross over to Itanium, Fister predicted.

"With Montecito, we'll have more breadth of the product line," said Fister, referring to Intel's dual-core Itanium processor, expected sometime next year. "By the time we get to the middle of the decade, we'll have even more."

Intel will reveal details about some of these new configurations at its Intel Developer Forum conference this February, he said.

Montecito and the next generation of Xeon processors will include new power control technology that allows parts of the processor to turn themselves off when they are not being used, Fister said. Following that, Intel is also working on new data center power control software that will improve the power consumption of Intel and Itanium blade servers.

"It looks across a rack of blades, and it does the same thing as power control on the CPU (central processing unit)," said Fister.