Although its first 64-bit processor has been delayed, Intel has been diligently assisting hardware and software vendors to optimize their products for its future chip architecture.
The effort seeks to advance the Xeon and especially the Merced chip as a platform for high-end corporate, or "enterprise," computing.
Now in its third year, Intel's Server Software Initiative taps specially chosen companies for two- to three-month projects that culminate in two weeks' of laboratory testing at one of four Intel sites. The chipmaker picks up the cost of participating in the program, whose price tag is undisclosed.
Industry leaders Dell Computer and Netscape Communications recently completed stints, while some 46 companies worked with Intel during 1997. In addition, manufacturers such as Dell, IBM, Compaq Computer, and others have set up or are setting up programs that mirror Intel's undertaking.
"It's kind of like building an infrastructure for Merced. We're laying the foundation for an infrastructure that supports a broad set of enterprise [applications]," said Mike Pope, director of Intel's enterprise server programs.
Corporate-use business software has traditionally run on Unix-based operating systems and non-Intel microprocessors such as Sun's Sparc or Digital Equipment's Alpha. As part of the program, Intel envisions persuading software developers to increasingly design their programs to run on Unix "flavors" sitting on top of the Intel chip architecture. Already, Hewlett-Packard, SCO, Sun, and Digital have said they will write versions of their Unix software for the upcoming 64-bit Merced chip, which was recently pushed back to 2000.
The program also supports applications running on Microsoft's rival Windows NT, but doesn't press developers to migrate to Intel's longtime de facto ally.
After being invited to participate, developers forge a project plan in combination with Intel engineers before visiting one of nine "application solution centers," such as the facility in Hillsboro, Oregon. On site, three Intel employees team with two visiting engineers. Most of the work revolves around how the software applications and the OS work on top of chip's architecture.
For the moment, the work involves Intel's forthcoming Xeon chip, which is a 32-bit processor, but development will shift to Merced in advance of that chip's arrival, according to Pope.
The drive is part of Intel's strategy for countering Compaq's 64-bit Alpha processor and Sun's 64-bit Sparc chip, both already established in the market.
"Intel needs to have applications running when they introduce those chips," says Dataquest server analyst Jerry Sheridan. "They don't want to wait--they need them out in order to make [the chips] a viable alternative."
The chip giant claims an average improvement factor of 5.4X over current performance, but says that its goal is to better performance from the user's point of view. The company's business is to deliver better microprocessors, says Stu Goossen, Intel's head of the software development labs, but it makes sense to see that the both hardware and software can take advantage of these improvements.
"If you have slow-running software, the user might think the system is slow," he added
The program seems to be popular. Says Albert Gouyet, Netscape's marketing director of messaging server products: "We've seen some pretty dramatic performance improvements."
Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.