As expected, Intel has unveiled the next generation of its Xeon processor, which will be the company's first chip to include the Extended Memory 64 Technology (EM64T) that allows the processor to run both 64-bit and 32-bit software.

The microprocessor vendor also released a chipset for workstations based on the new Xeon processor that includes a faster 800MHz system bus, DDR2 memory, as well as Intel's next-generation PCI Express interconnect.

Yesterday's news was accompanied by announcements from a number of hardware vendors, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard, detailing plans to release EM64T workstations with as much as 16GB of memory. Workstation users such as digital content creators and CAD engineers are among the relatively few groups of users who are working on applications that are bumping up against the 4GB addressable memory limit of 32-bit processors.

"We know that 4GB of memory is just not enough," said Joe Bentivegna, vice president of video development and operations for digital content software vendor Avid Technology. Because the EM64T workstations will let digital authors process a much larger amount of data directly in memory, the processors should have an effect in the high end of Avid's video and 3D animation business, he said.

HP's xw6200 and xw8200 will be available in early July with the 2.8GHz Xeon processor, and will cost £1,259 and £1,620 plus VAT, respectively. Dell's new Precision 470 and Precision 670 also come with the 2.8GHz Xeon in their base configurations. On sale in the US, they cost $1,399 and $1,699 (£770 and £935), respectively.

Intel’s new Xeon, which had been code-named Nocona, comes more than a year after AMD released its Opteron processor, which takes the similar approach of extending Intel's 32-bit x86 processor instructions so they can handle 64-bit computing.

Though Opteron and Nocona are expected to run the same software, they have significant differences, said Richard Dracott, general manager for Intel's enterprise platform marketing and planning group. "We chose to go with a faster front side bus, faster subsystem, and PCI Express." Intel does not support AMD's 3DNow graphics instructions.

The Linux operating system already supports the 64-bit extensions used by Nocona and Opteron, but Microsoft support will not occur until the company ships new service pack releases of Windows XP and Windows Server 2003, which are both expected by the end of the year.

Intel's x86 processors and chipsets will gradually adopt the new 64-bit extensions over the next few years, with the majority of x86 workstation and server systems supporting the technology by 2005 and the majority of all Intel systems, including desktops and notebooks, shipping with the extensions by 2006, Dracott said.