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The Age of Itanium

By the end of this year, the first 64-bit Intel systems will begin to hit the market. What does this mean for Linux?








Itanium/Opener
THOMAS DANNENBERG

The 64-bit Difference


After years of hype and anticipation, Intel Corp. is about to make the leap into the big leagues. In the second quarter of this year, the Santa Clara, CA chip-maker will join the likes of Sun, IBM, and SGI as a maker of 64-bit microprocessors in the hopes of penetrating the serious enterprise customer base that is the bread and butter of these companies.

The release of Intel’s first 64-bit processor, called Itanium, is expected to mark a sea change in the Unix workstation and server market, putting great pressure on other RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) processor platforms and catapulting Linux into a critical role as the key Unix operating system on a platform backed by one of the most successful high-technology companies on the planet.

Itanium is not a RISC platform but instead a new architecture developed by Intel and Hewlett-Packard, known as Epic (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing). Most desktop computers are either 16- or 32-bit. The number of bits is the size of the basic data unit used internally by the chip, which usually determines the amount of information that can be processed at a time. The amount of memory that the chip can use is determined by the size of the address bus, which is typically also 64 bits in a 64-bit chip. The move from 32-bit to 64-bit processors increases the maximum amount of memory that can be addressed directly from 4 Gbytes to 16 Ebytes (or 16 million terabytes). Intel engineers compare this huge increase to the difference between the distance one can throw a heavy ball and the distance between Earth and the sun.

The applications that will benefit most from Itanium are those requiring massive databases, scientific and technical computing, and e-commerce requiring high-demand Web servers. Itanium will potentially enable information from an entire database to reside in physical memory all at once, greatly improving performance, rather than being pulled from the hard disk when required.







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium




Some observers, like Microprocessor Report Editor Keith Diefendorff, predict that Intel’s entrance into the 64-bit computing arena will spell the death of proprietary 64-bit platforms within four or five years. As alternate 64-bit platforms are phased out, the theory goes, the various Unix operating systems that run on them will also decline. This would be a great boon for Linux, says Diefendorff. “There is some beauty in having one common Unix. If you look at the Unix segment of the market, there is momentum toward Linux becoming the standard Unix. But it won’t happen overnight.”

“Compaq Alpha developers and IBM PowerPC guys will build CPUs with just as high performance as Itanium, but from a market point of view, huge amounts of people are signed up for Intel’s IA-64,” observes Diefendorff, “And that certainly looks like the direction the industry has decided to go, whether or not it’s the best. It will make life very tough for most of the other RISC architectures.”

This trend has already put some pressure on MIPS. SGI had decided to phase out its MIPS-based computers in favor of Itanium, and it is gradually replacing its own version of Unix with Linux running on Intel-based computers. “You’re going to see more of that,” Diefendorff says.








Itanium/Balma
Itanium represents the first new computer architecture that runs Linux right out of the gate. — Mike Balma, Hewlett-Packard

Indeed, Hewlett-Packard Marketing Manager Mike Balma says his company’s flagship PA-RISC architecture will gradually be replaced by Intel’s IA-64 processors. Balma says, “Years ago when HP was looking at the next generation of systems, we realized we had great [processor] designs but wanted broad market acceptance. We went to Intel and arranged to jointly develop the next generation of 64-bit chips.” The IA-64 is actually a joint evolution of the HP PA-RISC architecture — the processor used by the HP 9000 workstation line — and IA-32.

HP plans to release new versions of its 64-bit PA-RISC chip systems for several more years, but “we also expect and plan — and have helped design in — that the IA-64 chips will have a faster rate of performance increase,” says Balma.

HP PA-RISC customers will gradually be moved to the IA-64, with IA-64 catching up with PA-RISC performance and Linux also being enhanced to match the high-end performance of HP-UX. HP-UX will be binary-compatible on IA-64, according to HP.

But HP has no plans to replace HP-UX with Linux. Lorraine Bartlett, product marketing manager for HP’s network server division, acknowledged that it will take some time for Linux to evolve to HP-UX performance levels. At the high-end, mission-critical space, HP-UX will take the leadership there. Right now, it’s our data-center operating environment. There’s a lot of things Linux doesn’t have yet, so it will be an evolution.”







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium




Flying out the Door



Itanium systems are expected to begin shipping during the second half of this year. Intel began sending out initial samples of the chip about six months ago, and in December began shipping prototype Itanium systems to computer makers and software developers. These are equipped with one to four Itanium processors and clock speeds ranging between 500 and 600 MHz. Thousands are to be made available to the industry during the first half of this year, according to Intel, in an unprecedented effort on its part to prepare companies for their own Itanium-based product launches well in advance.

Intel is entering a fiercely competitive fray. 64-bit processors and operating systems have been available for years. The 64-bit Alpha architecture, formerly developed by Digital and now owned by Compaq, has been around for about six years. IBM has its 64-bit PowerPC/AIX platform, and SGI has sold 64-bit MIPS systems. Sun offers a 64-bit Solaris running on UltraSPARC machines.

The Linux community may well be key to helping Intel prove itself in 64-bit computing. Intel will not dominate this market without the help of a convincing operating system backed up by compelling applications, and for this reason Linux has a very large window of opportunity. “Microsoft is an installed-base-focused company, and if there’s not a lot of Itanium machines on the market, they’re not compelled to act quickly. Linux will not be restricted by the same concerns. It remains to be seen if Linux will be tuned to Itanium faster than Windows NT,” says the Microprocessor Report’s Keith Diefendorff.

“Itanium represents the first new computer architecture that runs Linux right out of the gate,” says Balma. “It’s a significant milestone for the Linux community.” Hewlett-Packard collaborated with several companies, including Intel, as part of the Trillian project — an effort to create a port of the Linux kernel and accompanying development tools to Itanium and Intel’s IA-64 architecture. The group hopes to release the first code by the end of this quarter, enabling Linux companies to have products ready by the time Itanium computers begin shipping.







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium






Trillian


Engineers from a range of companies have been meeting regularly as part of the Trillian project, with the goal of producing a port of Linux that will optimize Itanium’s features, independent of the individual preferences of the companies involved.

The project, which has been expanded to include representatives from every major Linux hardware and software company, includes Caldera, CERN, Cygnus Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, Red Hat, SGI, SuSE, TurboLinux, and VA Linux Systems. (More info can be found at http://www.linuxia64.org.)










Itanium/Torvalds
64-bit issues have been dealt with long ago, and I don’t expect that Itanium will really imply any radically new issues to the core kernel code. — Linus Torvalds
GARY WAGNER

While some in the industry are concerned about how the work product of the Trillian group will be quickly and smoothly integrated into the next release of Linux, Linus Torvalds himself says the effort, on the whole, is not as difficult as some may think. “The architecture-specific parts — which are going to be 99 percent of the actual code — are not a problem,” he predicts. “They are basically just a ‘driver’ for the low-level CPU hardware, and I’ll just incorporate the Trillian code pretty much directly.” Torvalds plans to essentially leave Trillian alone until it produces working code.

“That does not mean that the Trillian release will be immediately integrated,” Torvalds says, “though they probably have made changes to other parts of the kernel to make it fit together with a new architecture. Those changes are the hard part — making sure that any new features make sense in the bigger picture.”

Still, he insists, “That isn’t going to be that huge of a job. With 10 other architectures already up and running [on Linux], there do not tend to be any major new issues. 64-bit issues have been dealt with long ago, and I don’t expect that Itanium will really imply any radically new issues to the core kernel code.”

Torvalds’ only involvement to date with Trillian has been “a few meetings and a number of e-mails.” But members of the team have worked closely with him before. “We know how we work and what to expect,” says Torvalds. “That makes things easier.”

Once the Trillian release is done during the first quarter, Torvalds says, “it’s probably not going to take more than a week to do the main code integration. There are probably going to be details hashed out for several months, though — most of the work really is in just finishing up rough edges, making small changes to other architectures to cleanly integrate new issues.”







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium






A Test Bed

While some corporations are taking a wait-and-see approach with Itanium — viewing it as a test vehicle for the new IA-64 architecture, and assuming that its successor (code-named McKinley) will be far more stable, the Linux community appears to be jumping aboard with great enthusiasm.

Cygnus founder (and Red Hat CTO) Michael Tiemann says, “The Itanium processor is going to expand the horizon of possibilities for Linux.” Cygnus is not new to the 64-bit world. It has been supporting 64-bit architectures since 1992, with the DEC Alpha, and has done ports to 64-bit SPARC, MIPS, and PowerPC.

“There’s a lot of support for 64-bit that exists in the GNU compilers for helping people bring their applications from 32 to 64 bits, so we think it will be a straightforward process for people to incorporate Itanium into their stable of computer platforms,” Tiemann says. “As a tools provider, we want to make that possible.”

Cygnus (which was recently acquired by Red Hat) and others are predicting huge market opportunities for 64-bit Linux products with the arrival of Itanium. “What attracts people is the opportunity to innovate,” Tiemann says. “With Itanium, Intel is opening that door in new ways that will bring developers to Linux. With IA-64, there’s a whole new blank wall for people to go and carve their names. It’s going to be exciting to see who’s going to be first to that wall. I’m sure we’re going to generate new names as a result of this in the open source community.”

For its part, Caldera Systems Inc. is targeting new business that will be catalyzed by Linux-based Itanium systems in e-commerce and large mail servers, according to Drew Spencer, Caldera’s vice president of engineering. Spencer represents Caldera on the Trillian team.

“We’re building versions of our product to target market segments we intend to go after,” he says. Caldera sees “Itanium as providing the horsepower with the Linux OS to be a front-line e-commerce platform,” Spencer adds, predicting that Itanium will become a “volume platform” over the next couple of years. “By having a 64-bit processor, the ability for the operating system to address extremely large amounts of RAM will allow the type of applications to grow substantially.” Particularly, database applications “that have been constrained on some of the 32-bit processors with Linux will have a whole new world opened up with that amount of memory that will be accommodated,” he predicts.

Caldera and others have already done much of the work to 64-bit-enable its code. Linux already runs on Sun’s UltraSPARC platform, for example, and Caldera did a port of its version of Linux to this platform as a “proof of concept to identify any potential issues,” Spencer says. “We haven’t found any.”

Caldera is also in negotiations with a number of e-commerce applications vendors that are moving their applications to Linux. Spencer declined to provide details but says the company would be partnering with these companies to include e-commerce applications with its version of Linux.

Bob Young, chairman of Red Hat, predicts that with the advent of Itanium, “with the support we are getting from Intel and the major players in the applications and hardware industry, Linux will become the standard market-leading Unix on the Intel platform.”







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March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium















Itanium/Miller
Itanium gives us the power to compete in data centers. With things like clustering and filesystems enabled, we will see Linux going higher up the ladder to do everything you need in a large company. — Cliff Miller, TurboLinux
GARY WAGNER

TurboLinux is also one of the companies that is a member of the Trillian team. CEO Cliff Miller says that Itanium and the IA-64 architecture will enable Intel as well as Linux companies to participate in the enterprise-server market in a new way.

“Up until now Linux has been successful in the low-end server market,” he says. “Itanium gives us the power to compete in data centers. TurboLinux is focusing on this. With things like clustering and filesystems enabled, we will see Linux going higher up the ladder to do everything you need in a large company.”

TurboLinux had teamed up with IBM to release its Linux package with DB2, which will be greatly boosted by Itanium performance. TurboLinux also signed a worldwide agreement with Sendmail, Inc. to bundle it with its TurboLinux Server. The result of this partnership will be seen when TurboLinux announces a new product it will call MailPro — which will be optimized for Intel’s forthcoming 64-bit processors.

TurboLinux plans to differentiate itself in this mail-server arena. “With a 64-bit platform, things like databases and mail servers become very interesting,” Miller says. “If you have a very busy mail server, you’ll need the computing power of Itanium. For us, it opens the door to bigger markets, opportunities that Linux hasn’t gotten into yet.”

In enterprise environments, high availability of the software will be critical, and for that reason TurboLinux is also focusing on enhanced clustering technology in its products.

Companies like Linuxcare and other service providers are expected to guide corporations into the world of Itanium with a range of customized applications and e-business solutions.

A number of new partnerships between Linux companies and OEMs are also expected to emerge as part of the Itanium launch. While mum about its upcoming announcements, HP, for example, says that it is forging alliances with other Linux distributors and applications companies. It has a partnership with Red Hat and is in negotiations with other Linux distributors.







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium









Crossing the Great Divide

Everyone who’s used x86-based computers for years has been spoiled. New chips supporting that architecture are introduced by Intel and other companies on a weekly basis, it seems, and almost no one worries about compatibility, just price and performance. Itanium, being a brand-new architecture, presents a much more challenging situation for programmers and users. Luckily, the members of the Trillian project realize what a big chasm we have to jump from one architecture to another and are working hard to close the gap.

The Trip

The creation of a complete Linux/IA-64 distribution that runs on the Itanium chip will happen in two stages. The first part, which the Trillian project is managing directly, includes the kernel and GCC (GNU C Compiler) tool suite. But that isn’t nearly a complete distribution — we still need X, window managers, desktop environments, Samba, Apache, drivers, and the most important component of all: applications.

During the first quarter of 2000, the Trillian group will make 15 Itanium systems available over the Internet. This will give developers a window of three to nine months to complete ports before Itanium-based systems ship in the second half of 2000. The Trillian group expects that complete Linux/IA-64 distributions and Itanium systems will become publicly available at the same time.

The Destination

Once everything is ported, what will we have? First, there’s no need to worry about fragmentation of the source base. The new version will be just one more addition to the list of architectures already supported by the main kernel tree.

The kernel will be 64-bit, as will be all device drivers, and very likely all system components such as X, KDE, GNOME, and their related utilities. The kernel’s version will track that of the main source tree, which will ensure that the IA-64 version won’t trail those for the older architectures.

There will be both IA-32 and IA-64 versions of system libraries available, as Linux/IA-64 will also run 32-bit applications, subject to the normal constraints of library compatibility that we’ve all grown to love. It’s also worth noting that the standard development tools will support creating either 32- or 64-bit programs. Many programs will be no more than a compile away from running as either a 64- or 32-bit application.

It’s too early to reach any firm conclusions, of course, and there will likely be a few closed-source projects that don’t port as fast as we’d like. But for Linux users the chasm between the IA-32 and IA-64 architectures is looking less like the Grand Canyon and more like a sidewalk crack every day. –Lou Grinzo







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Linux Magazine /
March 2000 / FEATURES
The Age of Itanium









Brave New Chip

To say that the Itanium and its IA-64 architecture isn’t your father’s Pentium would be an understatement. Its arrival starts a whole new ballgame, but one with familiar and compatible rules.

First and most obviously, the IA-64 is a full 64-bit architecture, which means it carries out internal operations, such as reading and writing memory values, or adding numbers, 64 bits at a time. The IA-64 will still be able to run existing IA-32 programs, though, and without using a performance-sapping software-emulation layer.

Increasing processor performance has traditionally revolved around two concepts, both tied to a chip’s electronic pulse, its clock signal. First there’s increasing the clock’s speed, which results in all those warring MHz numbers advertisers are always throwing around. The faster the clock speed, the faster the chip can get its real work done, all other things being equal. The trick, though, is to make sure that those other things aren’t equal and also improve them in your favor. Which is the second concept — making the processor do more work per clock cycle.

Processor chips have long done things in parallel. One example is pipelining, whereby a processor might simultaneously execute one instruction while decoding a second and retrieving a third from memory. With the IA-64, parallelism is taken to new heights and is even reflected in the name for the architecture used by Intel and Hewlett-Packard: EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing). EPIC uses several techniques to improve performance, including static branch prediction, predication, and speculation.

Static branch prediction lets EPIC use information that program compilers have traditionally thrown away, such as which branches of a decision are almost never used. EPIC uses these “hints” to execute a program more efficiently, since it will make far more intelligent guesses about where a program will go before it gets there. Many processors attempt branch prediction without the benefit of this extra information, but they pay a high performance penalty when they guess wrong.

Predication and speculation are very similar concepts. The first allows the chip to execute two different sections of code in parallel, such as the “if” and “then” branches in a C program, and use only the result it needs (once it knows which way a branch will be made) and discard the other one. Speculation helps the processor avoid the performance penalty of reading values from memory by fetching a value before it knows if it’s needed, and tossing it when it isn’t. Both techniques use otherwise wasted time to do work in advance, knowing that in some cases it will produce a performance gain.

The bottom line is that the EPIC architecture takes phenomenal steps to exploit its available information and opportunities (along with a little help from the compiler), to do as much useful work in those precious clock cycles as possible. Now, if we only had a 500 GHz processor… – Lou Grinzo




Wendy Goldman Rohm is Editor at Large of Linux Magazine. She is the author of The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates, published by Random House, and Under the Radar, written with Red Hat’s Bob Young. She can be reached at wendy@linux-mag.com.







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The Age of Itanium






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