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Linux on Itanium passes milestone

The version of the operating system for the Intel server chip crosses a threshold: It now can be built from the standard software rather than requiring special patches.

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The Itanium version of Linux crossed an important threshold Monday, developers said: It now can be built from the standard software maintained by Linux leader Linus Torvalds rather than requiring special patches.

"As of this morning, Linus' current (kernel) builds and works out of the box for ia64!" Linux-Itanium leader David Mosberger, a Hewlett-Packard programmer, said in a mailing list message. The version uses Torvalds' 2.5 development version of the kernel, or heart, of Linux, which in coming months is expected to become the 2.6 version, which will be sound enough for real-world use.

IA-64 is the former name for the set of instructions the Itanium processor can understand. The fact that those instructions are different from Intel's widely used Pentium and Xeon processors means that building an Itanium version of Linux--or any other software--has its challenges.

Itanium is Intel's effort to move its success in lower-end servers to high-end machines as well that today use processors such as Sun Microsystems' UltraSparc or IBM's Power4.

But Torvalds has frowned upon Itanium. "I really dislike IA-64. I think it's a losing strategy," Torvalds said in an October speech. "My personal hope is that IA-64 withers and dies because there's no point. It performs badly; it's expensive; it's an all-new instruction set...I find AMD's approach a lot more interesting."

Companies such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux that sell Itanium versions of Linux currently do so with several customizations. Mosberger still recommends using those customized versions of Linux for better performance and stability.

One high-profile Linux programmer working on Linux support for UltraSparc said in a follow-up note on the same mailing list that based on his experience, programmers shouldn't be so ebullient.

"I hate to rain on your parade, but for a platform that has so many companies paying people full time to maintain under Linux, having it take this long is a big disappointment for me," wrote David Miller, a Red Hat programmer. "The fact that there are still 'external patches for performance' is even more disheartening."

Fellow Red Hat programmer Alan Cox took a more conciliatory tone. The Itanium version of Linux initially was "hideously divergent" from regular Linux, he said. "It may be that ia64 should have aimed in a different direction from day one, but having finally ended up in the right place is a milestone."

Mosberger said he hopes programmers now will build new versions of Linux daily off Torvalds' kernel so new bugs can be stamped out quickly.