Back to the Future

PC CPU paradigm shift? Been there, done that. Don't you remember what happened with the 386? Oh, that's right, most of you are too young to remember. Compared to most of the Linux user demographic these days, I might as well be an octogenarian -- even if I'm only 34. Well, sonny, saddle up on grandpa's lap and he'll tell you a story. Be nice and I might even share some Werther's Originals, or some of this new cola-flavored gum that I'm addicted to from Penguin Mints.

PC CPU paradigm shift? Been there, done that. Don’t you remember what happened with the 386? Oh, that’s right, most of you are too young to remember. Compared to most of the Linux user demographic these days, I might as well be an octogenarian — even if I’m only 34. Well, sonny, saddle up on grandpa’s lap and he’ll tell you a story. Be nice and I might even share some Werther’s Originals, or some of this new cola-flavored gum that I’m addicted to from Penguin Mints.

In the mid 1980s — 1985 to be exact, when Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson were flying around in a Delorean-cum-time machine, Reagan was president, and all of us in high school were listening to Men at Work and Duran Duran — Intel released the 386, heralding in a so-called new age of personal computing. The 386 was the first 32-bit processor to be mass-produced and used in personal computers, and was the first chip to run a 32-bit PC version of Unix, SCO XENIX 386, in 1987. (The Motorola 68020s used in Mac IIs and Amigas around the same time were 32-bit also, though they never exploited the capability.)

But while many PC owners now had a 32-bit desktop chip, it wasn’t until the early 1990s, when Intel released the 386′s successors, the 486 and Pentium, that some of us finally got a 32-bit OS: OS/2 2.0, and then later, Windows NT and Windows 95.

At the time, everyone thought that moving to a 32-bit operating system was going to be a big deal, ushering in watershed performance improvement when we all got 32-bit applications. But that never happened. Because Windows 3.11 applications were already able to use 32-bit memory addressing through the use of improved memory managers in DOS, Windows and OS/2, a 386-native, 32-bit, protected mode operating system with 32-bit apps to go along with it really didn’t mean much for the average Joe. Only true geeks like yours truly cared about the fact that protected mode allowed multitasking, protected memory, multi-threading, and all that good stuff. No one else gave a crap.

For the most part, the first and second generation 32-bit applications were bloated, didn’t really exploit the new chips, and well, were slower. Why? The executables were bigger and took up more memory!

Did users really need a 32-bit word processor? Hell no! Oh sure, you could multi-thread your print jobs on DeScribe Word Processor for OS/2, but was there really a significant performance and feature increase when using the 32-bit version of Microsoft Word for Windows over the 16-bit one? Nope. It just used up more hard disk space and memory, and in those days, hard drives and memory weren’t cheap. A typical mega-power-user OS/2 2.0 bond trading workstation that I set up in the World Trade Center in 1992 had 32 MB of RAM and a 200 MB hard drive, and that was considered to be a friggin’ rocket ship. 16 MB of RAM for an IBM PS/2 model 70 cost like $600, and this is when your typical home PC had 4-8 MB of RAM, if it was a deluxe model, for running Windows 3.1.

Okay, I admit, there were some guys that made legitimate use of 32-bit. There was this one dude in the high technology lab at JP Morgan, a former Russian nuclear physicist, that used the 32-bit version of Excel on Windows NT 3.1 on a DEC AlphaStation to calculate a 10-year histogram of fluctuating interest rates on a daily basis to predict future trends. He couldn’t do this on the 16-bit version, because he couldn’t model a spreadsheet that big given the memory limitations.

Marty, It’s Your Kids!

Flash forward in that Delorean to May 2004, and we’re now listening to Britney Spears, Beyonce, and Blink 182. IBM sends me this really super-decked-out Intellistation A-Pro to test out and play with. It’s a dual Opteron 2.2 GHz with 3 GB of RAM, twin 80 GB Serial ATA Drives, and a dual-screen capable nVidia Quadro FX card. This is a machine that you’d think is begging to run a fully-optimized and exploitive operating system, right?

Well, one of the things I’m beginning to notice is that it really sucks when you’re an early adopter and are also in the middle of a paradigm shift for everyone else. Not only are the serious power users moving to 64-bit versions of Linux, but they are also moving to kernel 2.6, and with that comes updated, more bleeding-edge versions of compilers, libc, other API support libs… yadda, yadda, yadda. And all sorts of source code that refuses to compile.

So, given this serious hardware that IBM sent me, I decided on installing Fedora Core 2 Test 3 (FC2T3), which is to the be first 2.6 kernel-based desktop from Red Hat (and will likely be generally available by the time you read this). Because this is an Opteron box, I also decided to go for the 64-bit version of FC2T3.

I know the Red Hat guys were well-intentioned, but I think they went a little nuts with the 64-bitness. Granted, if you are going to run a native 64-bit Linux kernel for Opteron, you have to run 64-bit device drivers — that’s a requirement.

And applications like Maya make sense to be 64-bit, as do things like MP3 and MPEG-2 encoders. And games. And numerous server-side applications. But a 64-bit web browser? Give me a break!

All right, now I can see where 64-bits might come in handy on a web-browser, particularly in areas like plug-ins, such as mplayer for viewing video files, or Real Player, or an MP3 plug-in. Hell, 64-bits might even improve page rendering times for certain types of XML data, like VRML or real-time, client-side rendered, vector graphics or something like that. Or a Java Virtual Machine.

But if you are going to have a 64-bit browser on a 64-bit desktop OS, compile and install the right plug-ins for the architecture. Or, supply the 32-bit version of those apps in parallel so all of the applications work! I want to watch my Spider-man 2 QuickTime trailers, dammit!

See, as it turns out, if you have the 64-bit version of Mozilla or 64-bit versions of any application that uses a plug-in type architecture (such as GAIM or GIMP), you can’t use 32-bit plug-ins. Why? Because 32-bit plug-ins are linked into 32-bit libraries, and those exist in a completely parallel environment from the 64-bit stuff (/lib and /usr/lib versus /lib64 and /usr/lib64). It’s like the application doesn’t even see the support libraries for the 32-bit stuff.

So, I went down the list of stuff that no longer works because I have the 64-bit versions of everything. GAIMifications (the little MSN-style GUI incoming IM notifier that plugs into GAIM)? No worky on the 64-bit version unless I recompile it and have all the development libraries needed for that. Mplayer? XINE? Even if I recompile them, no worky with 32-bit audio codecs. Macromedia Flash Player 6? Hah. It’s closed source, and doesn’t exist for 64-bit Linux yet. Adobe Acrobat PDF plugin for Mozilla? No worky on the 64-bit Mozilla. The list goes on and on.

Unlike the early 1990s where we all had to go through some painful migrations and were forced to listen to some truly horrendous pop music in the process, AMD64 is supposed to offer the luxury of not having to go through this kind of migration insanity if we don’t want to. Both the Opteron and the Athlon64 (and the upcoming Intel Nacoma, which is an Opteron clone) have the ability to run 32-bit applications at native or better speeds in parallel with 64-bit applications on a 64-bit OS.

So if that 64-bit web browser doesn’t fully support all the plug-ins that users need, or if the media player doesn’t have all the proper support yet on 64-bit, I implore you — those of you at Red Hat, Novell, Mandrake, Debian, and Xandros who are in charge of putting together the packages for the distros we use — for crying out loud, install the 32-bit one. Make the 64-bit one available for people who might make use of it, but don’t force us to use it by default.

And please, someone get me some better music to listen to.



Send Valium, hip hop, and email to perlow@linux-mag.com.

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