The version, at this point a very raw collection of the Linux kernel along with bundled software and a less inconvenient installation, is significant for companies who want to move their software to Linux and Intel's future flagship chip design.
Although TurboLinux was the first, it likely won't be alone for long. The other major Linux sellers--Red Hat, SuSE and Caldera Systems--are expected to come out with their own versions soon.
Even Microsoft is paying attention; it was one of the companies that downloaded the TurboLinux OS, said Lonn Johnston, TurboLinux vice president of corporate communications.
Linux, barely known in the computing industry two years ago, has emerged as one of the three premier operating systems that Intel is backing for the launch of the Itanium chip. Intel has been among the most aggressive investors in Linux, taking equity stakes in several young Linux companies as a way to give the operating system the seal of approval of the dominant chipmaker.
"It never hurts to get out there first," said Microdesign Resources analyst Keith Diefendorff, but the more significant software development for Itanium is the compilers. Compilers, which translate programs written by people into instructions a chip can understand, are vastly more important with the Itanium chip than with other designs.
Linux, an operating system based on Unix and rapidly embraced by the computing industry, is a key part of Intel's push to establish its Itanium chip, the first in its "IA-64" family. The chips will allow computers to store huge databases entirely in memory and enable faster mathematical calculations. Intel hopes Itanium and the later members of the IA-64 family will carry it into high-end computers that currently use chips from IBM, Sun Microsystems, Compaq, SGI or Hewlett-Packard.
The Itanium chip has been delayed several times and is widely viewed as a first-generation product that will be used to debug software rather than to run critical computer tasks. But even months before the first systems built on Itanium arrive, it's already a dominant part of the computing landscape, with all the biggest hardware companies backing it.
Most have higher expectations for Itanium's successor, code-named McKinley, which will offer higher performance and will arrive in late 2001, when companies have had more time to remove bugs from IA-64 computers and software.
The number of operating systems available on Itanium has dropped. Compaq canceled its program to bring Tru64 Unix to Itanium. SGI decided to use Linux for the new chip. And IBM, Sequent and the Santa Cruz Operation decided to merge their versions into a single package called Monterey-64.
The maturity of the Itanium operating systems will have a powerful influence on how well the chip design is received and how fast the chips wrest market share from the competing designs of Sun Microsystems, Compaq, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and SGI.
The three-person "Frontier Group" at TurboLinux has three Itanium machines, early prototypes from Intel. Though the computers tend to crash when pushed hard, the effort is going better than expected, said Uros Prestor and Robert Read.
During a three-day period, the Frontier Group prepared 350 different software packages in five days in an effort to get the alpha version of TurboLinux for IA-64 out.
But using new-fangled, crash-prone hardware under such intense conditions is a mixed blessing, Prestor said.
"It's always exciting being on the cutting edge. But during crunch time, we would take out the Nerf gun and shoot the machine," he said.
For Linux, IA-64 offers a free ride into a more upscale neighborhood. Linux currently is most popular on less powerful 32-bit Intel chips, with versions for 64-bit chips such as Compaq's Alpha and Sun's UltraSparc far less common. IA-64 could be a way for Linux to become more popular in more powerful servers.
"I think it's potentially very important," VA Linux Systems chief executive Larry Augustin said in an interview Wednesday. In particular, IA-64 Linux machines with large amounts of memory will be useful for serving up Web pages quickly, he said.
The Trillian project to bring Linux to Itanium began at Hewlett-Packard more than two years ago and now involves numerous hardware companies. The Linux sellers themselves got involved in December. The Trillian project members released the core of Linux for IA-64 to the public in February and the first compiler two weeks later.
A month ago, SGI--a hardware company moving its high-end servers and graphics machines to Linux--promised it would release its own compiler by the end of February. That compiler still hasn't shown up, though it's eagerly awaited, Prestor said.
The current IA-64 compiler, GCC from Red Hat's Cygnus team, works very well when compiling software for lots of different chips, but it doesn't produce particularly fast software, said Prestor. SGI's compiler is expected to produce software tuned to run much faster.
HP and Intel each have their own compilers for IA-64 as well. Diefendorff expects HP's will offer the highest performance. "If anybody is ahead on this, it is probably HP," he said. HP invented the IA-64 architecture and joined with Intel to make sure the design wouldn't be relegated to a small market.
Though ostensibly an open-source project in which anyone can see and modify the original programming instructions, most Trillian work happens with the original teams, said Eric Sindelar, business development manager at VA and leader of VA's Trillian team. "All these hardware issues are still under NDA (non-disclosure agreement)," he said. "In early-level systems and software, you can't detach the operating system debugging from the hardware debugging."
Diefendorff expects Itanium chips to arrive in late fall. Intel has said the chips will first run at speeds of 800 MHz.
"I don't think the performance of this first generation is going to create a demand pull. It will mostly be an Intel and HP push," he said. But Intel's marketing and pricing efforts, combined with the longer-term potential of IA-64 and the existing support from computer makers, will mean success. "For the large-volume server market, it looks like IA-64 is unstoppable at this point," he said.