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Itanium software upgrade hits bump

A package that lets Intel's Itanium chips run programs that are tailored to more mainstream Pentiums and Xeons has been delayed until next year.

A software package that lets Intel's Itanium processors run programs that are tailored to more mainstream Pentium and Xeon chips has had its launch date bumped back from this year.

The software, an Intel package called the IA32 Execution Layer (IA32-EL for short), was scheduled to debut in Service Pack 1 for Microsoft's Windows Server 2003 operating system. However, the introduction of that update has been pushed back from 2003 to the second half of 2004, a Microsoft representative said Friday.

Microsoft still expects to support IA32-EL when Service Pack 1 ships and plans to include the feature in all its versions of Windows for Itanium, the company said.

Microsoft's schedule change means the software is likely to show up earlier in Linux. SuSE Linux plans to include it in SuSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) 9.0, due to ship in the second quarter of 2004, according to the company's chief technology officer, Juergen Geck.

However, the inclusion of the technology in SLES is contingent on Intel's revamping of the software so that it works on the coming 2.6 Linux kernel, Geck said. For example, that kernel dramatically changes how the operating system handles simultaneous tasks, or "threads."

"The abstraction layer (IA32-EL) that Intel provides is very intrusive into the kernel and Glibc (a library of software routines used by Linux programs)," Geck said. "They have to port it to the new architecture...If Intel manages to make that transition smoothly, we expect to see it in SLES 9.0."

Itanium is a 64-bit processor that can handle vastly larger amounts of data than can 32-bit Intel processors such as Xeon and Pentium. However, it uses a very different instruction language than do the Xeon and Pentium and can only run software that's written for those chips very slowly.

IA32-EL translates the Xeon instructions into ones the Itanium can understand, and a 1.5GHz Itanium 2 will be able to run Xeon instructions at about the speed of a 1.4GHz Xeon, according to Intel. Real Xeons currently run at 3.2GHz and will likely operate faster than that by the time IA32-EL arrives.

The schedule change could affect some people that need to run older software that hasn't been reworked for Itanium, but that's a comparatively small group, said analyst Dean McCarron.

"The 32-bit execution layer is going to make Itanium run legacy code better. But if your intent is to run legacy code, you're not going to buy Itanium in the first place--you're going to buy Xeon," McCarron said. "It's not that big an impact."

The Linux version of the IA32-EL software includes a combination of open-source components and proprietary components, Intel spokesman Scott McLaughlin said. (The core of Linux, called the kernel, must be open-source but sometimes includes links to proprietary modules. For example, graphics chipmaker Nvidia supplies proprietary software Linux can use.)

Red Hat, the dominant seller of Linux, plans to make IA32-EL available to Red Hat Enterprise Linux customers in 2004, Intel said. Red Hat declined to comment beyond saying the company continues to work with Intel on the technology.