AMD announced today that its 32/64-bit processor (code-named Sledgehammer) will go on sale as the AMD Opteron early next year. Unlike Intel's 64-bit offering, the Itanium, the AMD Opteron offers 100 percent backwards compatibility with today's 32-bit x86 processors and is an extension of AMD's Athlon chips, rather than a whole new platform. AMD also announced that it will drop its low-end Duron chips by early 2003.

"The AMD Opteron processor is designed to deliver high-performance server and workstation solutions for today's demanding enterprise applications, delivering scalability, reliability, and compatibility," the company told Windows & .NET Magazine in a pre-announcement briefing last week at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2002. "The AMD Opteron processor can run 32-bit applications natively while allowing a seamless transition path through 64-bit extensions, as customers require."

The biggest news from AMD, however, concerned Microsoft support. Rather than create separate 64-bit Windows releases for the Opteron (as some people had speculated), Microsoft will support the AMD Opteron's x86-64 extensions in its 32-bit Windows OSs, including Windows .NET Server and the next version of Windows XP. AMD didn't explain how or when Microsoft will release this support, but said that Microsoft and AMD would discuss Opteron/Windows compatibility at a later date.

The Opteron eventually will be available in configurations of as many as eight processors, dramatically expanding AMD's scalability compared to its current-generation Athlon processors. AMD expects to ship the Opteron in the first half of 2003, although a single-processor variant, partially based on the current-generation Athlon, will ship later this year.