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AMD touts Linux support for new chips

Advanced Micro Devices says the next major public update for Linux will support the company's x86-64 technology--the basis for its next-generation Hammer chips.

It's Hammer time for Linux.

Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices said Thursday that it expects the next major public update for the Linux operating system to include support for the company's x86-64 technology--the basis for its next generation of processors, known as the Hammer family.

The Linux updates for x86-64 support will come from SuSE, one of the top Linux developers and distributors, AMD said. SuSE has submitted updates for x86-64 to the Linux community, and AMD expects that the updates will become part of the upcoming Linux 2.6 kernel. The kernel is constructed by several top programmers, including Linux inventor Linus Torvalds, and is the foundation of the open-source operating system.

Although x86-64 has enjoyed support from Linux developers since its introduction, and versions of the operating system have been modified to support Hammer chips, the move by SuSE would provide more of an official stamp by writing support directly into the kernel. The latest Linux kernel version is 2.4.18, and plans are in the works to create version 2.5 for developers and version 2.6 for the general public.

The 2.6 kernel isn't expected for a long time, given that work has barely begun on version 2.5 and there's still a lot to do getting the 2.4 kernel into shape. If those overseeing the kernel like the x86-64 extensions, it's possible they'll be migrated to 2.4 production and not have to wait for the 2.6 kernel.

Linux already works on several 64-bit chips, including Compaq Alpha and Sun UltraSparc.

So far, Microsoft has been mum on whether it will support x86-64 in its Windows operating system. However, AMD has said that the software maker is evaluating the technology.

The first Hammer chip, dubbed Clawhammer and due later this year, will be released as a desktop PC processor.

But Linux support will be critical for AMD's next Hammer chip, Sledgehammer, due in 2003, to gain traction with corporations that buy large numbers of servers. Increasing sales to corporations has been a major goal for AMD. Taking advantage of Linux, which has been enjoying a surge in popularity in the server arena, could be one way to do so.

x86-64 works by adding several new instructions to the current x86 processor architecture that extend the chip architecture so it can address 64 bits of data. Current AMD Athlon and Intel Pentium x86-based chips address 32 bits of data. x86-64 allows AMD chips to support both.

Refashioning the x86 architecture for 64-bit computing was unpopular until recently, noted Fred Weber, AMD's CTO. The architecture is not as clean or straightforward as some, according to many computing experts, making it difficult to expand. Intel, in fact, opted to create an entirely new architecture for 64-bit computers. AMD, though, has shown through Hammer that the extension can be accomplished fairly easily, Weber asserted. Plus, by extending the architecture, all the software written for 32-bit x86 processors can still be used.

"It's like Esperanto. It's a great language, but it doesn't mean that English should go away," Weber said. "People don't laugh at us anymore when we say x86 is a solid foundation...Hammer is not some experiment."

Hammer also will be fairly inexpensive, Weber added. The chip is close to the same size as some of AMD's Athlon chips. Hammer computers, which were demonstrated in San Francisco earlier this week, required no special cooling.

The addition of 64-bit addressing allows the chips to support larger amounts of physical memory, among other things, which speeds up large database programs typically used on servers. However, AMD's approach is directly opposite to that of Intel, which designed a completely new architecture, Itanium, to address 64 bits and run 32-bit applications where necessary. Intel is also said to be working on its own version of 64-bit extensions for x86.

In practical terms, AMD is primarily concerned with getting 64-bit applications and operating systems for servers ported over to Sledgehammer. Clawhammers will likely use regular 32-bit software. 64-bit applications won't come to desktops until around 2004, when the price of memory will drop enough to allow manufacturers to squeeze 4GB of memory into a desktop, Weber speculated.

Also on Thursday, AMD announced another Hammer-related initiative, a new Boston Design Center. The center, located in Boxborough, Mass., will employ about 35 engineers charged with developing HyperTransport interconnects for servers for AMD's Computation Products Group.

HyperTransport is a chip-to-chip system that transfers data at high speed. AMD plans to use it in new chipsets for Hammer chips.

Gerry Talbot, former president and chief technical officer of API Networks, was named director of the design center.

Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.