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Linux makes inroads into high-end computers

Moves by Hewlett-Packard, SGI and Red Hat are putting major muscle into the development of Linux for Intel's flagship Itanium chip.

Parallel actions by Hewlett-Packard, SGI and Red Hat are combining to put major muscle into the development of Linux for Intel's future flagship Itanium chip.

Gartner analyst George Weiss says Linux technology and the market itself are not mature enough for a significant run at the high end.

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Next week, Hewlett-Packard and Intel are expected to release programming tools that will enable people to create and run software designed for the new chip, sources familiar with the companies' plans said. Though some of these tools exist already, the key new feature will be an HP product that lets people try out Itanium software without having to wait for one of the relatively rare prototype machines.

Intel and HP representatives declined to comment on the plan.

Meanwhile, SGI--a maker of high-end computers that is banking much of its future on Linux and Intel chips--released its own tools Monday to help write software for Itanium computers. Members of the Trillian team creating Linux for Itanium have been eagerly awaiting these critical tools, called "compilers," which translate programming code into instructions a computer chip can understand.

While HP has the most experience with the details of the IA-64 architecture, SGI is good with compiler expertise in other areas. "They have had historically very good compilers, and they have very good compiler people," said MicroDesign Resources analyst Keith Diefendorff said.

The release of the HP emulation software will be accompanied by compilers developed by Cygnus and supporting software called libraries from Intel.

Red Hat has caught up to rival TurboLinux by releasing its test version of Linux for the Itanium chip. TurboLinux released its first version, a very raw prototype, two months ago.

The moves are critical for Linux if it's going to meet the expectations Intel and others have for the upstart operating system, still too new to be suitable for most high-end applications. Consequently, Linux currently is most popular in low-end servers based on 32-bit Intel chips, but Itanium and its successors in Intel's "IA-64" family offer a path that could lead Linux into higher-end computers.

But developing software for the new chip is difficult right now because there are so few Itanium prototype computers to go around. Intel has shipped more than 3,000 so far, but the systems are in high demand and aren't available to the vast majority of Linux programmers.

The three announcements illustrate the cooperative nature of the Linux movement: All the companies involved, as well as others, can take advantage of the software its competitors are releasing. By comparison, Microsoft and Sun are working separately to develop Itanium versions of their own operating systems.

Linux, a clone of Unix developed by a host of "open-source" programmers who share software, competes with Windows and versions of Unix from Sun and others. To accommodate the Linux movement, Intel has had to curtail its usually secretive methods, sharing more chip information than is typical for an unreleased product.

The goal is that Itanium versions of Linux will be available at the same time Itanium systems ship later this year. Linux dovetails with Intel's philosophy of bringing high-end technology into mainstream computers. Intel hopes the Itanium chip and its successors will bring Intel technology into expensive, high-power computers that previously were the domain of Sun, Compaq, IBM and SGI, each of which have 64-bit processors.

The Itanium chip, Intel's first 64-bit processor, will be able to manage vastly larger databases than 32-bit chips and will be much faster at mathematical calculations.

HP, the original inventor of the design underlying the IA-64 chips, has its own compilers but has yet to release them. "In my talking to HP, my feeling is they believe their value-add in this whole IA-64 proposition is their compiler," Diefendorff said.

More surprising to Diefendorff was the fact that SGI chose to release its compiler. Likely reasons for the move include an attempt to win the attention, respect and goodwill of the Linux community and to foster development of software that will run on the type of computers SGI is good at building, such as its next-generation SN-1.

SGI released its compilers as open-source software under the General Public License license, which allows other programmers--including SGI competitors--to see how SGI achieved its reputation for strong compiler abilities. In addition, the SGI compilers may legally be fused with compilers from Red Hat's Cygnus team or modified by a user. CNET's Linux Center

Microsoft is attached to the IA-64 architecture for some of the same reasons as Linux companies are: a way to penetrate untapped high-end markets. Microsoft's new Windows 2000 operating system is helping to undo the company's reputation for crash-prone software, but at the same time, the number of chips Windows runs on has dropped from four in the 1990s to one today.

Intel favors three operating systems for IA-64 computers: Linux, Windows and a version of Unix called Monterey-64 being jointly developed by IBM and Santa Cruz Operation.

IBM has its own plans for using Linux in high-end machines. The company's work developing Linux for its mainframe S/390 computers has now become an actual product.

TurboLinux and SuSE, two of the four major sellers of Linux, will distribute Linux for the S/390 in partnership with IBM's global services, IBM said today. The new version will allow Linux software to be used on these very expensive but very reliable servers, opening them to a wider range of uses.

Sun, though its Solaris operating system is more mature than Linux, can only dream of the attention Intel is lavishing on Linux. Intel and Sun are feuding over how much support Intel will give Sun in developing Solaris for IA-64. At the root of the disagreement is the fact that Sun prefers to sell computers based on its own UltraSparc chips.