Does Microsoft Have Something Against 64-Bit Processors?

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February 16, 2000 [Sm@rt Reseller & ZDNet News]
Linux: Itanium's Great 64-Bit Hope?
Microsoft now is expecting Whistler Beta 2 to be its first IA-64 offering.

Through a strange set of converging circumstances, Linux could end up as the preeminent 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 Jan. 1, 2000, viewed by 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 fulfills 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 Inc. 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.

No Preordained Plan

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 skeptical 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 optimized 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 Intel Architecture Business Group.

Linux To The Rescue?

Sun and Microsoft aren't the only major OS working feverishly to deliver 64-bit offerings simultaneously with Intel's Itanium. But of all of 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 optimized for Itanium. This week at the Intel Developers 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 Feb. 29.

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, finalize and productize 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 Jan. 1 memo.

Market Impact

In theory, this will give Linux a modest shot in the arm - probably not enough to push it past Windows's market share, but enough to gain some more market share points. What will be interesting to see is how Intel and Microsoft respond to the likelihood of Win64 (64-bit Windows) being late to the gate. When it was only the Alpha processor (and Digital/Compaq) that would be hurt by Microsoft taking its time, Redmond could afford to take its time without worrying about market share issues. With Itanium (formerly Merced), the delay becomes more serious. We can envision any number of scenarios (and their likelihood):

  1. MS institutes a crash program to get Win64 ready in time for Itanium release Microsoft will probably increase its efforts to get the product out on time. However, we don't foresee them pulling out all the stops, just to avoid missing the Itanium release. [30% probability]

  2. Intel delays Itanium by a couple of months, to allow MS to catch up a little Although this makes interesting fodder for "Wintel conspiracy" freaks, there is minimal benefit to Intel in doing this. (In the short term; in the long-term, Redmond might consider exacting a penalty for Intel's lack of "assistance".) In addition, Intel has shown an increasing willingness to work closely with Linux factions. Of course, we are tactfully ignoring the possibility that Intel will miss its delivery date anyway. [Less than 10% probability]

  3. Microsoft does the "crash program" thing, but accepts a three-month lag between Itanium and Win64 Although this is unappealing to Redmond, we think it is the most likely scenario. Companies committed to Itanium and Windows will put up with the wait. The risk lies in companies wavering between the two OSes, but committed to Intel processing. We think the amount of attrition resulting from any delay will be relatively small when compared to other reasons for attrition. In addition, Microsoft could always try to use the "It's more important that we have it for McKinley (due for release in 2001, expected to be significantly more powerful than Itanium) than for Itanium" excuse. [60% probability]

User Recommendations

Users won't be able to try Linux-on-Itanium for another six months or so. Those wishing to try it may want to install Linux on their current Intel-based hardware, to ensure that they feel comfortable with it beforehand. Potential users may also want to speak with someone who already uses Linux-on-Alpha, to see if there are significant/sufficient performance gains. (Bear in mind that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison.)

The theoretical performance gains to be had from the move to 64-bit hardware (including Alpha) are large, but only if the application is also 64-bit. Digital/Compaq learned the hard way that 32-bit apps running on 64-bit hardware do not necessarily run faster. Users should exercise appropriate caution regarding promises made in anticipation of Itanium, relative to performance boosts.

One other side issue: Itanium (unlike AMD's Sledgehammer 64-bit processor) is not strictly compatible with the current x86 architecture. This will further muddy the 64-bit waters. Although Itanium will ship before Sledgehammer, this is no longer a guarantee of market share.

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