Intel courts Linux developers with Itanium specs

UPDATE: Chip giant freely releases chip information for its 64-bit processor in move to bring Linux developers on board
Written by Will Knight, Contributor

Intel took another step toward the launch of its next-generation chip platform Wednesday with the release of the micro-architecture reference required to write applications for the 64-bit Itanium processor.

The release this morning on Intel's web site of an unprecedented amount of information about this non-x86 instruction set will enable software developers to write the compilers for Itanium without signing a non-disclosure agreement with Intel, previously necessary to get this amount of information about Intel processors.

Intel hopes that the release of this information will particularly spur on development within the open source community and encourage Linux developers to adopt Itanium, since open-source developers depend on freely available information. "What matters is that the software industry moves fast," remarks an Intel spokesman. "Imagine the type of motivation this would give the Linux world."

The new instruction set is called EPIC, which stands for Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing.

The information in the reference guide will be needed: Itanium will be far more dependant upon the quality of compilers than previous Intel chips. For example, the new processor does not optimally reorder instructions. It leaves that up to the compiler. Previous x86-based processors reordered many instructions automatically, making it easier to write compilers.

"The performance of Itanium depends on the quality of the compiler," said Keith Diefendorff, Editor in Chief of the Microprocessor Report. "That didn't used to be the case."

Diefendorff says the disclosure will make it easier for independent developers and open source developers to write good compilers for Itanium. However, Intel has already disclosed the information to its trusted developers and many open source developers.

64-bit technology vastly speeds up the rate at which data can be processed within a computer by allowing the chip to manipulate data in 64-bit chunks rather than the 32-bit chunks handled by today's Pentium or Athlon machines. This translates into improved performance especially for high-end computing.

Intel has developed this new instruction set as part of its 64-bit strategy.

"This release of Itanium is the biggest milestone for us since the introduction of the 386," says European technical manager Hans Jurgen Werner. "The decision to open up the architecture is something we have never done before."

For software makers, however, redeveloping applications to the new architecture is likely to be a long, complex and costly process.

Partly because of this, Intel says it does not expect IA-64 to take over the server market right away, and this could leave the market open to invasion by AMD, whose Sledgehammer 64-bit chip is on its way next year.

By contrast, AMD also says that its 64-bit Sledgehammer will deliver 64-bit performance for x86-compatible software.

Itanium has also been designed to be backwards compatible with older 32-bit software although it is thought that performance of such applications on this platform will be poor.

With heightened performance Intel hopes that Itanium will open up the high-end computer market. Intel says it will start shipping samples for Itanium midyear and systems will arrive in the second half of this year. Intel has plans to produce five 64-bit microprocessors including Itanium.

Eamonn Sullivan and Matt Broersma contributed to this story.

Whenever Windows is discussed its name is linked to that of Intel, manufacturer of the vast majority of processors, chipsets and even motherboards inside Windows PCs. Why isn't Intel under threat of being broken up in a similar way to Microsoft? Go with Peter Jackson to read the news comment.

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