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AMD seeks Linux developers for 64-bit chip software

Advanced Micro Devices is putting its money and energy into recruiting Linux developers to write software for the company's 64-bit processor that will first appear in late 2001.

Advanced Micro Devices is putting money and energy into recruiting Linux developers to write software for Hammer, the company's 64-bit processor that will first appear in late 2001.

Under an initiative announced today at LinuxWorld in San Jose, Calif., AMD said that is has created a Web site for Linux developers and will ship participants a "technology simulator" of the chip next month so that the companies can begin to move their operating systems and applications to Hammer. AMD will also fund other Linux-Hammer related initiatives, sources have said.

The move parallels the approach taken by AMD rival Intel, which invested in VA Linux Systems and helped other companies bring Linux to its upcoming 64-bit Itanium chip. The company essentially is trying to make it as easy and as inexpensive as possible for companies to write software for the processor. Executives from Red Hat Software, SuSE and other Linux companies saluted the move.

Hammer, which was earlier code-named Sledgehammer, is AMD's most ambitious project to date. The chip will run software designed for 32-bit processors, such as Intel's Pentium III and AMD's Athlon, as well as software for 64-bit chips, a class of processors that includes Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc, Compaq Computer's Alpha and Intel's upcoming Itanium.

Samples of Hammer will emerge in late 2001, with commercial availability likely following in 2002, Bob Mitton, division marketing manager at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based AMD, said last week.

Moving to 64-bit chips--as long as there's an operating system and other software that can take advantage of them--enables the use of much larger databases and other advantages. For this shift, though, the companies have chosen different paths.

Intel has chosen to develop a completely new language, called IA-64, for communicating with Itanium and subsequent 64-bit chips. Sledgehammer, though, uses an architecture AMD calls x86-64, an extension of Intel's 32-bit architecture.

However, to run on these new chips, Linux and its accompanying programming tools must know how to speak the chips' native tongues. AMD began releasing details on how to communicate with Sledgehammer earlier this week.

SuSE said one of its programmers, Jan Hubicka, has produced the first versions of programming tools necessary to develop Linux and other software for Sledgehammer. Other companies involved in AMD's x86-64 effort include CodeSourcery, which has experience in programming tools, scientific and technical computing firm Portland Group, and others.

SuSE, a German company that is one of the four major sellers of the Unix-like operating system, plans to hold an initial public offering, chief technology officer Dirk Hohndel has said.

With its primary use on servers today, Linux could provide a new way for AMD to attack the business market.

To date, AMD's chips have been used almost exclusively in consumer computers. With the upcoming Mustang chip and Sledgehammer, however, the company will try to enter the market for corporate desktops and servers.

AMD is already gaining peripheral penetration into the corporate market. Net Express, a small server and workstation specialist in the San Francisco Bay Area, has sold single-processor Athlon servers running Linux to a number of established companies, said Roland Baker, Net Express CEO.

Penguin Computing CEO Sam Ockman, however, added that AMD will need to popularize chipsets for making multiprocessor servers before commercial acceptance of their chips takes off. Penguin is actually dropping Athlon from one of its server lines. AMD's first multiprocessor server chipset comes out later this year.

"For our market, what we need a server to be is rack-mount friendly and capable of multiprocessing," Ockman said.

Still, other small companies and even motherboard makers have said that they are seeing a shift in resistance to AMD in corporations.

The 32- and 64-bit designations refer to the amount of data that a processor can handle in a single instruction: The larger the number, the more information the chip can digest in one gulp. With 64-bit chips, server makers also can incorporate much more memory into their machines, the key feature for speeding up access to large databases.

Sledgehammer will use the same basic instruction set as the Athlon but will contain features that allow the chip to run 64-bit programs. As a result, software makers need only retrofit their existing programs, not write completely new ones.

"This is the conservative step approach. It is not a major disruption," Bob Mitton, division marketing manager at AMD, said earlier this month. "If it's not broke, why fix it?"