Linux: Itanium's great 64-bit hope?

Internal memo says Microsoft now expects Whistler Beta 2 to be its first IA-64 offering - next year - leaving Linux as perhaps the most viable OS for Intel's upcoming chip

Through a strange set of converging circumstances, Linux could end up as the pre-eminent operating system for Intel's 64-bit Itanium chip, due in the second half of this year.

Microsoft is holding to the party line that it will have a 64-bit Windows release ready to ship once Intel officially releases Itanium. But according to an internal Microsoft memo, dated 1 January 2000, viewed by ZDNet sister publication Sm@rt Reseller, the software company expects to release Beta 2 of Whistler -- its next version of Windows following Windows 2000 -- as its first Itanium offering.

The final shipping version of Whistler isn't slated to arrive until March 2001, according to the memo.

"Windows needs to be available at Itanium launch. Our goal is to use Beta 2 as the product that fulfils this requirement," said the author of the Microsoft memo, distributed internally to its Windows development team.

The memo, along with this week's spat between Intel and Sun Microsystems over Solaris for Itanium, leaves Linux looking like it may become the most viable operating system for Itanium when the chip ships in the third quarter of this year.

The way the Itanium OS story is unfolding is more a result of market forces than any preordained plan on Intel's part. Intel officials at its semi-annual Intel Developer Forum in Palm Springs this week said they were unaware of any change in Microsoft's plans to deliver simultaneously with Itanium a final, shipping 64-bit version of Windows.

Microsoft "has committed publicly to have 64-bit Windows at (the Itanium) launch," said a sceptical Michael Pope, director of the enterprise program inside Intel's Enterprise Server Group.

When Itanium ships, "We will have a production level version of Windows 2000 64-bit," he said. "At a minimum, it will be Windows 2000 as it is today. The question is, how many features (from Whistler) will they add."

Microsoft delivered, more than a year ago, a software developers' kit with tools and documentation to help developers make their applications 64-bit-compilable.

However, not even an alpha version of 64-bit Windows exists, Microsoft officials confirm.

This week has not been a red-letter one for Itanium OS support. The week began with a public spat between Intel and Sun Microsystems in which Intel is claiming Sun is dragging its feet in developing a version of Solaris optimised for the IA-64 processor.

"What we have seen over this year, is a pattern of a lot more talk than action (from Sun). That's not what we signed up for," said Paul Otellini, executive vice president and general manager of Intel's Architecture Business Group.

Sun and Microsoft aren't the only major OSes working feverishly to deliver 64-bit offerings simultaneously with Intel's Itanium. But of all these offerings, only 64-bit Linux is at the beta testing stage at this point. The others are in alpha or pre-alpha.

In early February, the Trillian Project -- a group consisting of Caldera, CERN, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, Red Hat, SGI, SuSE, TurboLinux and VA Linux -- released its first beta of a version of Linux optimised for Itanium.

This week at the Intel Developer Forum, IBM announced that the Project Monterey team (IBM, the Santa Cruz Operation and Intel) will have an alpha version of Monterey ready to deliver to developers on 29 February.

Major operating systems typically go through at least a year of rigorous beta testing before they are released commercially.

Given this timetable, it's looking increasingly doubtful that the big OS vendors, like Microsoft, IBM and Sun, will have enough time to test, finalise and roll out their OSes so they can ship simultaneously with Itanium.

Microsoft declined to comment on the particulars of its 64-bit OS delivery plans or on the contents of the 1 January memo.

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