At the beginning of this year Intel decided to get behind an open-source project called Xen, the end result of which is to develop a virtualisation engine — or hypervisor — designed to allow multiple operating systems to run on a single server. The project came along at the perfect time for Intel — the chipmaker is building Virtualization Technology (VT) into chips beginning this year, but Windows won't support the feature for two or three years.
Participants in the Xen project — also backed by Sun, HP, Novell, Red Hat, AMD, Voltaire and others — claim Intel's contribution has been substantial. "The [open source] community is very grateful, and the market too — since Xen can exploit both existing and new Intel equipment to deliver a unified virtualisation solution," says Simon Crosby, vice-president of marketing at XenSource, a start-up that develops and supports the software.
Xen isn't an isolated example. Intel is beginning to take an increasingly active role in helping open source projects such as Xen and GNU/Linux to flourish. The chip-maker may not be angling to become an open source hero along the lines of IBM, which a couple of years back trumpeted a $1bn ($600m) investment in Linux, but the developments amount to a recognition that open source software is as critical to its business as proprietary systems such as Windows.
In the bigger picture, software of all sorts is becoming fundamental to Intel's business. This has become even more the case with Intel's recent shift from focusing on individual components to selling entire platforms, and with the introduction of new features such as Active Management and VT that rely on software.
In the meantime, Intel has become one of the world's biggest software developers, employing more than 5,000 software engineers. "Increasingly things are more about software than hardware for Intel. It's not an addition to the platform, it's an increasing part of the value of that platform," says Gartner analyst Brian Gammage. "And they know they are not going to see that value delivered if they restrict the support of their utilities to one Microsoft operating system."
Linux is becoming increasingly big business for Intel, both on enterprise servers — where it has become an entrenched presence — and potentially on the desktop as well.
But despite the momentum that companies such as Sun and Novell have tried to instil in the concept of Linux as a desktop OS, some experts claim that in mature PC markets, such as Western Europe and North America, it still isn't a serious proposition. But they could be missing the real market.
Linux workstations present a far more attractive option in emerging markets such as China, where the labour costs of migration are lower, Windows isn't so entrenched and price is more of an issue. "There is a growing realisation that the future growth of the market is moving away from the mature markets, into the emerging markets," says Gartner analyst Brian Gammage. "With the new users there, cost is absolutely determinant. And labour costs make Linux migration more appealing in emerging markets."