Linux distributor Red Hat today released the crucial software--called a "compiler"--that translates programs into instructions that can be understood by Intel's upcoming 64-bit Itanium chip. The move comes at a time when a similar development effort between Sun Microsystems and Intel has turned into an ugly spat.
Itanium is the first member of a new class of more powerful processors from the chipmaker. Hardware maker SGI said it will release its compiler as well, promising that its version will result in faster programs.
Relatively few Itanium computers exist, because the chip is still available only in prototype form. But the arrival of compilers is important. It will enable the worldwide group of programmers who collectively develop Linux to take the first steps in making sure the open-source OS and all its components work on Itanium machines. With the compilers, developers will be able to start testing software drivers for countless network cards, hard disk arrays, video systems and other essential hardware components.
Linux, a clone of the Unix operating system and competitor to Windows, is growing increasingly important in Itanium plans. Intel has invested in Linux companies such as Red Hat, SuSE, TurboLinux and VA Linux Systems, and now Dell Computer is warming to Linux in favor of proprietary versions of the Unix OS.
"The proprietary Unix world is giving way to the open-standards world," said Carl Everett, senior vice president of Dell's personal systems group, in an interview yesterday.
The SGI and Red Hat compilers will be released as open source, meaning that anyone may modify the workings of the software. Both packages will be released under the Gnu General Public License, which means theoretically that the two compilers could be merged.
Compilers are a critical ingredient for the Itanium chip. Much of the performance gain that's expected from Itanium will only become a reality if compilers can line up instructions in just the right way so that the chip can operate efficiently. And compilers also are an essential tool for getting higher-level software, such as databases or e-commerce software, to work on the new chip.
"For this architecture, you really need a great compiler," said HP's David Mosberger in an interview earlier this month. Mosberger has been working on Linux for Intel's upcoming chip families for two years.
Mosberger said Linux compilers work about as well as other compilers, but that there's "a lot of head room to optimize them better in the future."
The Linux news comes as Sun has run into trouble bringing its Solaris operating system to the new chips. Intel said it will offer only minimal help to Sun because Sun wasn't doing enough to encourage software companies to use Intel chips instead of Sun's own UltraSparc chips.