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Intel earns programmer tool a Linux foothold

Open-source options are favored in Linux culture, but chipmaker wins a pair of new supporters.

SAN FRANCISCO--Intel has convinced two Linux companies to give a fair shake to a crucial programming tool called a compiler, a significant step, given the historic preference for an open-source alternative called GCC.

Red Flag Linux, a prominent Linux seller in China, is building its version of the open-source operating system using Intel's compiler, the chipmaker announced at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo. And Novell, whose SuSE Linux is second only to Red Hat in commercial popularity, is shipping Intel's compiler as an option for development tools in its latest Linux product.

A compiler translates software written by humans in a high-level language such as C into the binary instructions a computer chip can understand. How well that process works is a crucial element in achieving high-performance software. Intel believes the optimizations in its own compiler give it an advantage over the general-purpose design of GCC, which works with many processor families.

Red Hat, though, might be a tougher sell. In 1999, the Linux vendor acquired the chief company behind GCC, Cygnus, and it strongly advocates open-source options such as GCC over proprietary ones such as Intel's compiler. GCC is widely used not just for Linux, but for countless other open-source projects.

In addition, Cygnus' top executive was Michael Tiemann, who is now Red Hat's chief technology officer. Tiemann says it's best to boost performance by finding compiler improvements that apply to all processors rather than working on specific optimizations for one chip family or another.

But so far, the performance edge goes to proprietary compilers.

"GCC is known for universality, not performance," said Insight64 analyst Nathan Brookwood. In contrast, "Intel's 32-bit compiler is the gold standard for optimizing compilers."

Another compiler company at LinuxWorld, PathScale, sells its product for use in groups of low-end Linux machines linked into a high-performance computing cluster. At the show, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company announced that it is working with Sun Microsystems and Advanced Micro Devices to tune software on Sun's servers that use the AMD's Opteron chip.

PathScale's compiler was originally created by high-performance computing specialist Silicon Graphics for Intel's Xeon chips, Brookwood said. The product is respected and well-tested, he said.