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Chipmakers angle for Linux support

In a sign of how strategic Linux has become, AMD and Intel are angling to lure open-source programmers to their future chip designs.

In a sign of how strategic Linux has become, AMD and Intel are angling to lure open-source programmers to their future chip designs.

Linux--with a strong developer community and a flexibility that allows the Unix clone to run on numerous chips--has become an asset the chipmakers want on their sides as they prepare future chip designs. Linux has become a tool to secure quick support for a new chip.

"Linux gets software into market more quickly than waiting for support from Microsoft," said Mercury Research analyst Dean McCarron. "Linux is a wonderful operating system for rapid deployment. The Microsoft operating systems ultimately get used in very large volume, but when (a chip) is first coming out, those operating systems aren't typically available."

Linux has been running on 64-bit chips such as Compaq's Alpha, SGI's MIPS and Sun's UltraSparc for years, but Windows is a relative newcomer, with a first, limited 64-bit version arriving this week. And Microsoft, with conservative customers and huge support costs for new products, moves more deliberately than the comparatively freewheeling Linux community.

Because the fast-paced Linux world is filled with developers and companies eager to make names for themselves, backing Linux also can help put pressure on Microsoft.

"I think it is the Linux presence that will cause Microsoft to have to take Hammer seriously," Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood said of AMD's upcoming line of high-end processors. "You know that there will be a Linux implementation that supports Hammer. Assuming it provides attractive performance characteristics, and Microsoft wants to dominate the server world the way it dominates the desktop, it's going to have to address the Hammer issue, or it won't be able to complete its domination."

The 64-bit question
Intel and AMD are working on 64-bit chips--higher-end models that can handle vastly larger amounts of memory and transfer information in bigger chunks than 32-bit products such as Intel's Pentium or AMD's Athlon. Most 64-bit chips are used in servers, the high-powered networked computers where Linux is most common. Both Intel and AMD crave a bigger presence in the lucrative and prestigious server market.

Without software support, new chips will fail, and each chip faces its own hurdles. Intel's new Itanium chips speak an entirely different language than the 32-bit chips, so software must be reworked to take advantage of the change. AMD's Hammer line is a 64-bit extension of the language used by the 32-bit chips and will run current software well, but taking advantage of 64-bit features will require software to be overhauled.

In May, Intel introduced the first version of Itanium, code-named Merced, but analysts and computer makers have higher expectations for Merced's successor, McKinley. Hammer is scheduled to arrive in the first half of 2002, the same time as McKinley.

German Linux seller SuSE, for one, believes both chips hold promise for its long-term plans, said Holger Dyroff, SuSE's director of sales and marketing. "We think that with both chips--AMD's Sledgehammer (the top model in the Hammer line) and Intel's Itanium--we can grow into the traditional Unix market" currently dominated by 64-bit chips from Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and IBM.

Intel pioneered close involvement with Linux programmers more than a year before it introduced the first Itanium chip. Now AMD is following the same model with its Hammer chips, working in particular with SuSE and establishing a Web site for the effort. The newest version of Linux, 2.4.9, is available for Hammer.

GCCing into the future
To improve Linux support for Itanium, Intel last week announced it would sell key software, called compilers, which translate software written by humans into the instructions a chip can understand. Compilers are necessary for any chip, but the performance of software on the Itanium chip is particularly sensitive to the quality of compilers.

The Intel compiler

Meta Group says IT organizations should acquire experience with Linux as a potential long-term alternative to Microsoft Windows and Unix offerings.

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is fine for some, but most Linux developers use GCC, known more for its support of many languages and chips than for its optimization for any particular technology. And GCC for Itanium "has a ways to go," said David Mosberger, Hewlett-Packard senior research scientist and leader of the effort to bring Linux to Itanium.

"A lot of people just use GCC. It's very important to help...developers get compilers up to speed," Mosberger said.

Happily for Linux fans, it appears that such work is happening. Representatives from Intel, IBM, HP, Red Hat and SGI gathered at a summit meeting to work on improving GCC.

AMD and Intel both had prominent booths at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo this week.

Among those pitching the Hammer designs: AMD's Kevin McGrath and Conor Malone, in charge of wooing software developers to Hammer.

The Linux compiler for Hammer is "pretty much done," Malone said, and will be included in the next update of GCC.

"It's not unreasonable to think a Linux port will be out before any kind of Windows," Malone said.

Focusing on Itanium
Doug Miller, director of competitive strategy for Microsoft's Windows division, declined to say whether Microsoft planned to create a 64-bit version of Windows for Hammer. But he said the current emphasis is on Intel's chips, and supporting new chips isn't undertaken lightly.

"Right now our focus is on Itanium," Miller said. "The thought of doing another platform is a scary proposition."

McCarron expects a Windows version eventually. "It would not take a huge amount of effort for them to do that," he said. "I would be very surprised if there wasn't at some point Windows support for 64-bit AMD products."

The 64-bit chips aren't the only products for which the companies are trying to secure Linux support.

Intel is working not only with Microsoft but also with the major Linux companies to make sure their operating systems can support a new chip technology called hyperthreading, which essentially lets a computer with a single CPU act like a dual-processor system, said Intel spokesman Seth Walker. Hyperthreading, built into Pentium 4 and new Xeon chips, is arriving in early 2002, Brookwood said.

And AMD this week announced that the major Linux sellers--Red Hat, MandrakeSoft, Caldera International, Turbolinux and SuSE--have certified the new dual-processor server design.