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HP steps up plans to bring Linux to high-end chips

The company retains a Linux consultancy to ensure the increasingly popular software runs on its advanced, 64-bit PA-RISC chips by the first half of next year.

Hewlett-Packard has quietly stepped up efforts to make Linux compatible with its most powerful processors, an indication the company wants the open-source operating system to play a greater role in its future products.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has retained a Linux consultancy to ensure the increasingly popular software runs on its advanced, 64-bit PA-RISC chips by the first half of next year, according to HP executives.

A 32-bit version of Linux for the PA-RISC chip architecture is ready. "But for the 64-bit system, we want to make sure it gets there in a timely way," Mike Balma, leader of HP's Open Source Solutions Operation, said in an interview.

Linux already runs on computers built around Sun's 64-bit UltraSparc processor and Compaq's 64-bit Alpha chip, and numerous companies including HP are working to make Linux compatible with Intel's forthcoming 64-bit offering. HP's move to "port" Linux to its own high-end chip architecture is another sign that the upstart operating system has become a staple menu item in the world of enterprise computing.

Linux is derived from the Unix operating system but can be downloaded for free or very low cost. It's popular in low-end servers, but several companies and numerous individuals are working to increase its abilities for more powerful servers as well as more ordinary desktop computers.

With a 64-bit chip and a 64-bit operating system, a computer can use larger amounts of memory and work with vastly larger databases than lesser 32-bit systems, an important advantage for business-use servers. A 64-bit system also can accomplish high-precision mathematical calculations faster.

HP first acknowledged its intention to bring Linux to its 64-bit PA-RISC chips in October 1998. In February 1999, the company announced it would support a collection of Linux programmers called the Puffin Group by providing some servers to get the PA-RISC port up and running.

Now that relationship has deepened, with HP paying the Puffin Group to get the port ready on a specific schedule, said HP's Balma. A test version of Linux for the PA-RISC chip is due in February, with the final version due in June, he said.

Interestingly, the Puffin Group was purchased by high-flying Linux reseller Linuxcare just last week.

The work sponsored by HP closely parallels the Trillian effort to bring Linux to the 64-bit chip family Intel plans to launch next year with the introduction of its Merced processor. Intel, HP, IBM, VA Linux Systems and several other companies are participating in that initiative.

As previously reported, Linux sellers Red Hat, Caldera, SuSE and TurboLinux are part of the Trillian effort as well.

HP developed the PA-RISC chip in the 1980s. Various models are used in all of HP's current Unix servers and workstations, but the newest HP Unix systems are built so that they can be upgraded with Intel's 64-bit chips.

Balma acknowledges that Linux systems using the two 64-bit chips will compete for attention. "There will be some overlap," he said. "It will be interesting to see the competitive position of Linux in the 64-bit environment."

Currently, the 64-bit PA-RISC chips are used in HP's V-class, N-class and L-class servers. However, HP is working on a new, thin model to compete with IBM's B50, Compaq's DS10 and Sun's Netra t1 servers.

Linux would be a likely prospect for use in such systems, a decision that IBM and Compaq have reached with their thin servers. Customers such as Internet service providers, who buy dozens or hundreds of such thin systems, like the relative reliability and the fact that they don't have to pay for each copy of the operating system when they opt for Linux.

Although HP plans eventually to phase out the PA-RISC chip line in favor of the 64-bit chips from Intel, the PA-RISC plans extend four more generations and several more years.