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Sun works with simulated Merced chip

The company has a version of its Solaris 7 operating system up and running on an early simulation of Intel's next-generation Merced processor.

Sun Microsystems has a version of its Solaris 7 operating system up and running on an early simulation of Intel's next-generation Merced chip, Sun said today.

Solaris 7 is a 64-bit version of Sun's Unix operating system, and the final version will be ready in time for the release of Merced, Intel's first 64-bit chip, said Brian Croll, director of marketing for Solaris. Solaris now is working on an Intel prototype of Merced known as the "pre-silicon software development environment."

Being able to work on prototype Intel equipment is a big advantage that Sun didn't have developing Solaris for Intel's current chips, he said. In the past, Sun "had to buy an Intel chip and hack on it. Now we're in the inner circle," Croll said.

Solaris 7 is part of the shift to 64-bit operating systems, which allow computers to process some information faster and manage larger amounts of information than their 32-bit counterparts. Microsoft's Windows NT currently is a 32-bit operating system, but designers are working on a 64-bit version.

Although many companies have announced support for Intel's 64-bit chips, the Santa Clara, California, chipmaker is somewhat late to the 64-bit game. For example, Sun has its 64-bit UltraSparc chip and Compaq Computer has Digital's 64-bit Alpha chip, which can run Windows NT.

Merced currently is scheduled to debut in the first half of 2000, but many analysts don't expect the new chip design to catch on for big business until the next version, McKinley, currently slated for release in the second half of 2001. Nonetheless, nearly every major server and OS vendor is preparing products centered around Merced in anticipation of the increasing market presence of 64-bit Intel products.

About 95 percent of Solaris is independent of the hardware it's running on, but the remaining 5 percent bears a disproportionate amount of the performance burden and must be tuned for each platform, Croll said.

"When we have it up and running on the simulator, it means we're very well along the way," Croll said, but Sun still must get the operating tuned with prototype versions of the new chip before the company begins to heave sighs of relief.

There are always a lot of processor-specific instructions that must be weeded out of the operating system when making it work on a new platform, he said.

Sun isn't the only company porting its version of Unix to the 64-bit Intel architecture, called IA-64. Compaq Computer, Silicon Graphics, and Hewlett-Packard, among others, have embarked on a similar strategy. Linux OSes will also likely be tuned for Merced.

"What we're seeing here is a change of the scenery. Now we're seeing other operating environments tightly aligned with Intel," compared to the past 15 years, when Intel chips ran little other than Microsoft operating systems.

"This is really important in the industry because Merced will be a powerful enough chip that it starts allowing Intel-based systems to deliver a lot more power than was available before," Croll said.

Moving Solaris to other hardware besides Sun's UltraSparc chips is part of Sun's strategy to propagate its operating system. Another part is giving Solaris 7 away to noncommercial users such as students and home users for only the cost of shipping. Since August, Sun has given 75,000 copies of Solaris away, Croll said.

Sun released Solaris 7, formerly known as Solaris 2.7, in October.