Sun Microsystems was beaten to the punch by Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and the collection of programmers working on adapting the Linux operating system to run on the forthcoming chip. The processor had been code-named Merced but now is called Itanium.
The only reason for Sun's lag was that it's hard to get access to the Intel prototype hardware used to test out software, said Jonathan Han, product manager for Solaris on Intel. Solaris is Sun's version of the Unix operating system.
"Unfortunately, hardware access has been the gating factor," Han said. Once the company got access, it took less than a week to get Solaris working on the new chip, he said.
Getting established operating systems up and running on a new chip is a critical stage in creating products for any processor. An operating system, the special software that's in charge of a computer, is needed before higher-level software such as a financial application or image editor can run.
The Itanium will be the first in a new line of chips that will form the "IA-64" family, a new architecture originally conceived at HP. Intel says it will have room to outgrow current high-end chips from IBM, Sun, and Compaq Computer, among others.
A version of Windows and Linux were demonstrated when Intel unveiled the first Itanium samples in late August. HP said in September that its version of Unix, called HP-UX, was running on the Itanium prototype.
IBM had passed a similar milestone for its new operating system about two weeks earlier, called Monterey-64. Monterey-64 is a combined version of the Unix products from IBM, the Santa Cruz Operation, and Sequent, a server maker IBM acquired.
The Unix landscape got a little simpler last month when Compaq reversed its plan to translate its Unix, called Tru-64, to the IA-64 chips. Instead, Tru64 will work only on Compaq's Alpha chips.
Sun's servers and workstations are based on Sun's own chip, the UltraSparc, but the company also sells the Solaris OS for Intel chips. However, the current Intel version of Solaris is less powerful, running only on 32-bit chips, whereas the UltraSparc version of Solaris runs on 64-bit chips. A 64-bit operating system is able to deal with much larger amounts of memory and much larger databases of information, important factors for high-end systems that handle tasks such as keeping track of all of a large company's accounts.
The advent of the new 64-bit chips from Intel means it will be easier for software companies to make sure their software runs on Intel and UltraSparc system. Software will be about 95 percent alike for the two systems, Han said.
The arrival of a 64-bit Solaris on Intel chips won't cause Sun to change its Solaris strategy, Han said.