Intel, OEMs Publish IA-64 Development Guidelines
At the Intel Developer Forum last month, Intel Corp. announced the Developer Interface Guide for IA-64 (DIG64): the latest in a string of components that will enable programs for the IA-64 architecture.
A working group for the development of the DIG64 specification published an interoperability guideline based on a set of system building blocks and software interfaces for servers built on Merced -- the first processor for the IA-64 architecture.
The working group’s members include Intel and several OEMs, including IBM Corp., Dell Computer Corp., Compaq Computer Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., NEC Computer Systems Division (www.nec.com) and Siemens Corp. (www.siemens.com). There are other contributors to the working group as well.
"IA-64 is a new architecture, so it allows us, in a way, to get a fresh start," says Mike Demshki, product marketing manager for server industry marketing at Intel. "Without a guideline we may have everyone building toward a common model, but end up with products from different vendors that don’t work together well."
One problem Intel faces with getting that fresh start is making sure the industry is releasing products that coincide with its processors. If Merced ships and there is no software built for it, then nobody will want it.
"Any sort of coordinating function Intel can provide that helps the whole industry build applications for its products is very valuable," says Greg Weiss, research analyst at D.H. Brown Associates Inc. (www.dhbrown.com), a market research and consulting firm.
The DIG64 guideline is expected to accelerate time to market, with a goal of delivering Merced-based servers in the second half of next year. The guidelines cover core system building blocks -- processor, memory, chipset, I/O bus and system management -- and their interfaces with peripheral devices for communication, networking and storage, as well as low-level firmware interfaces for system configuration, boot and run-time services.
Key elements in the DIG64 establish a foundation of requirements and recommendations for using the 64-bit address space, managing resources dynamically, and enabling scalability. The guidelines specify the common support of select industry standards in each of these areas and specify implementation requirements for those standards.
James Gruener, managing director of Windows 2000 platforms at Aberdeen Group (www.aberdeen.com), says DIG64 will help the industry make strides in furthering reliability and innovation in IA-64 based products.
Intel expects products based on the DIG64 guidelines to begin entering the market in the fourth quarter of this year. The chip giant anticipates Windows NT/2000, Linux, Monterey and a variety of Unix flavors will become DIG64 compatible, as will peripherals, devices and other software.
Phoenix Technologies Ltd. (www.phoenix.com), for example, already released a firmware product that is DIG64-compatible. Ready64 is Phoenix Technologies' IA-64 system-enabling software solution that supports Merced and future IA-64 processors.
One part of the DIG64 guidelines addresses whether to make older legacy technologies optional or leave them behind altogether.
"It is very difficult to migrate away from anything. We keep adding new things and carrying these old technologies along with the new," Demshki says. "Old technologies are usually not phased out until they fall into perpetual disuse."
While the working group tried to help companies migrate away from technologies that are being built into systems but not seeing much use, it did not want to completely eliminate older technologies that some market segments still use.
"Part of the process of developing this specification is to get people in the industry to wave red flags in Intel’s face to make sure that all the parties involved are on the same page when it comes to getting rid of older technologies," D.H. Brown’s Weiss says.
Under the DIG64 specification, for instance, parallel ports are optional. Weiss points out that there would be a downside to eliminating the parallel port. If an NT server blue screens, one way to work around that is to plug another server into the parallel port and debug the crashed machine. Without parallel ports on new servers, this little trick is no longer possible.
Technologies that are completely eliminated by the specification include ISA slots and ISA buses, Super I/0 and VGA.
Group members agreed that the positives -- such as bringing costs down while making systems more solid -- outweigh the negatives from discontinuing certain technologies.
On the software side, the specification eliminates direct coupling. Direct coupling drives up costs and slows down the adoption of new technologies by forcing operating systems and their BIOS’s to be hardware specific.
The new model replaces direct coupling with a firmware layer between the hardware and the operating system. Part of this layer is the Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI), a preboot layer that replaces DOS and specifies more information about what the system looks like to the operating system, which enables the software to make adjustments for different hardware configurations. With EFI, if something changes at the hardware level, even intermittently, the firmware can communicate between the hardware and the operating system without interrupting either.
In addition to the products that will surface because of this specification, there will be cost benefits for IT departments, as well. Because the hardware and software are designed to work together, qualification costs are expected to come down. Plus, migrating away from old technologies will lower the cost of support.
This first release of DIG64 is oriented toward Merced-based platforms and is available at the DIG64 Web site, http://dig64.org. The working group plans to release a new set of guidelines that will correspond to every new IA-64 release.
"Now that we have the Merced document under our belt, the next generation of the DIG64 specification will be for McKinley-based systems," Demshki says. McKinley is another chip being developed by Intel with production targeted for 2001.