I'm at Linux World Expo in San Jose California, tearing myself away from the show floor (and incidentally missing some interesting-looking conference panels) to write a report. The things I do for our readers.

Michael Dell of Dell Computer (Nasdaq: DELL) gave the opening keynote speech, which was entertaining. I couldn't stay for the whole talk from Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HWP) chief scientist Joel Birnbaum, but he seemed to be having fun. IBM (NYSE: IBM), Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), Compaq (NYSE: CPQ), and of course all the Linux vendors are here in force. This place is PACKED.

Apparently they had to turn away over 50 companies because they don't have space on the show floor. (I believe it -- I had to wait in line for this terminal.) Next year they're moving to San Francisco in search of a bigger convention center. I'd love to share the inside dirt I learned talking with employees of Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW), Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO), Sony (NYSE: SNE), and America Online (NYSE: AOL), but most of them asked me not to.

With all that going on, what REALLY caught my attention was the party AMD (NYSE: AMD) threw Tuesday night. AMD's head of research (whose name I can't remember, and no, it's not because of the free beer) gave a half-hour speech interrupted by a lot of applause (as I said, there was free beer), and basically announced that they have created a 64-bit version of Linux for AMD's new Sledgehammer design out of thin air.

He did this by 1) introducing a new website, x86-64.org, which has the complete documentation on how to program AMD's new 64-bit chips as well as a simulator to allow 64-bit Sledgehammer programs to be tested on standard Pentium/Athlon systems, and 2) handing out CDs containing that stuff to the crowd. That's all AMD had to do. Intel's "Trillian" project to port Linux was mostly posturing, and an excuse for a dozen companies to claim credit for a relatively simple job any one of them could have done. I'd expect a 64-bit Sledgehammer version of Linux to be ready before the actual chips make it out of manufacturing.

Interestingly, the CDs that AMD handed out (containing this stuff we could download from the website) say "Unauthorized copying, lending, and resale by any means is strictly prohibited." Middle management strikes again. (As with most large companies, not only does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing, it would actively oppose it if it ever found out. But I digress...)

AMD's new 64-bit Sledgehammer design actually has several advantages over Intel's IA64 (formerly known as Merced, now known as iTanium). AMD's approach is different. They added extra 64-bit instructions to their existing 32-bit chip design. A Sledgehammer can run existing 32-bit programs just fine, and AMD demonstrated its Sledgehammer simulator running the current version of Linux for 32-bit Pentium/Athlon systems to Tuesday's slightly inebriated crowd and much applause.

To take full advantage of the new 64-bit instructions (such as the ability to manipulate really large 64-bit numbers and huge amounts of memory) the programs still have to be rewritten, but they can still use the older instructions where appropriate and thus take advantage of the variable-length CISC instruction trick to minimize the bottleneck of a fast processor talking to a slow motherboard.

The downside of AMD's design is it's a lot more complicated. Intel jettisoned the instruction translation layer because they felt it was just too complicated to be worth extending. Intel's design is easier to manufacture; AMD's design is more ambitious but also more difficult to turn into silicon. This is the traditional distinction between the two companies: Intel focuses on being good at manufacturing, AMD focuses on having better designs.

AMD is aiming for a deliberate transition, gradually adding 64-bit instructions to areas that need them. Intel's design is all or nothing. You're either running a 64-bit program or a 32-bit one. Intel is aiming iTanium at high-end servers that can afford to rewrite their software from scratch, AMD is aiming at the larger desktop market.

Interestingly, by publishing its specifications without requiring anything like a nondisclosure agreement, AMD is effectively inviting other manufacturers to make their chips compatible with Sledgehammer. Intel is fighting to protect its territory, while AMD is trying to be a leading vendor in an open marketplace larger than any one company.

It's going to be interesting to see how this one plays out.

Related Links:

  • Inside Intel: Microprocessor Design, Rule Maker Portfolio, 2/22/00
  • Inside Intel Again: Cold Hard Cache, Rule Maker Portfolio, 2/23/00
  • Inside Intel Again: RISCing the Pentium, Rule Maker Portfolio, 2/24/00
  • Inside Intel Again: Merced Vs. Crusoe, Rule Maker Portfolio, 2/25/00