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Intel funds move to boost Linux on Pentium

The open-source OS gets a serious shot in the arm with news that it will gain add support for Pentium MMX and Pentium III instructions.

Linux got a serious shot in the arm with news that it will benefit from an Intel-funded effort to add support for Pentium MMX and Pentium III instructions.

Cygnus and Intel announced that core Linux programming tools will gain support for the Pentium MMX instructions and optimization for Intel's chip architecture. In addition, Cygnus has begun work on bringing the Pentium III's new SSE instructions to Linux, and early versions of those improvements will begin emerging in the summer, said Scott Petry, vice president of marketing at Cygnus.

According to Cygnus, the company that performed the work, Linux programs running on Intel hardware will run 30 to 40 percent faster as a result. The improved software is in beta testing now and should reach full distribution by the end of June, Petry said.

Intel's continuing support for Linux is in line with the Santa Clara chipmaker's efforts to make its chips the basis for lots of different operating systems: It's not just Windows anymore.

Intel wants its chips to be the "unifying architecture of choice where you can have your operating system of choice," said Mike Pope, manager of enterprise software programs at Intel. "We want to make sure that operating systems that are relevant and demanded by users are optimized to take advantage of the latest features."

"Clearly, Intel wants to expand its market share beyond the Microsoft-oriented desktops and servers," said Tom Henkel, an analyst at Gartner Group. "They seem to be willing to invest in anything that might foster that cause."

Intel is investing very heavily in several Unix vendors' efforts to move their operating system to Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips, Henkel said. "You can pretty much get a million dollars out of Intel if you can get them to stay awake through the whole presentation," he quipped.

Sun Microsystems, Silicon Graphics, Santa Cruz Operation, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard are making their versions of the Unix operating system work on Intel's forthcoming 64-bit chips.

Under contract from Intel, Cygnus has been updating the software that's used to make chips like the Pentium understand the software that people write. This technology, called the compiler, translates programs written in high-level languages like C or C++ into machine language for the chip.

But not all compilers are created equal, and the default Linux compiler, GNU's GCC, has some catching up to do. Linux software still speaks the language of the 386 chip, which Intel introduced in 1985. It doesn't include support for the MMX multimedia instructions added in 1997 or for the new SSE instructions that arrived with the Pentium III.

Cygnus personnel, who write compilers for the Pentium and other chips for a living and who wrote about 80 percent of the code for the GNU compiler, have been updating the compiler to support the newer chips.

Intel said the new compiler will deliver a double-whammy performance boost. Not only will software compiled with the new technology run faster on Intel hardware, the operating system itself will too, Pope said.

Because the MMX and SSE instructions improve a Pentium's number-crunching abilities as well as its two-dimensional and three-dimensional drawing features, the compiler enhancements will improve Linux' workstation performance, Pope said.

The GNU compiler is released as open source software, meaning that anyone can see and modify it. Some programmers have been improving the compiler to improve Linux performance, said Cygnus' Kim Knuttila, and Cygnus has incorporated some of those patches into its work.

Last year, Intel invested in Linux distributor Red Hat, though Pope is careful to mention it's not an exclusive relationship that precludes work with other Linux distributors. "Our objective was to use them to make sure the right Linux operating system features are being incorporated to match our product releases," Pope said.