Intel Opens Itanium Specs

Intel Corp. publicly released developer specifications for its new 64-bit Itanium processor. This is a bold announcement on Intel’s behalf, since similar specifications for most new processors are released under Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) to a limited number of developers.

The Intel (www.intel.com) site http://developer.intel.com/design/ia-64/ provides developers of operating systems and compilers information on optimizing code for the Itanium’s functionality. In the past, Intel targeted a select cadre of developers to gain initial access to specifications. "Typically, we enable a small group of developers under NDA," says Jason Waxman, marketing manager for Intel’s IA-64 group.

Waxman says the last major processor release was the 386 back in 1985. It's a new environment now, which demands new approaches. "The knowledge base then was held by a small number of companies," he says.

Today, there is a profusion of software companies interested in developing for the Itanium, and a loosely structured open source community. Intel believes not providing equal access to all developers would have been detrimental. "[A broad spec] was a risk we had to take," Waxman says. The risk of competition was minimal to the advantage of having a broad group of developers write code for the new processor.

Waxman downplays the risk that this release may help competitors develop Itanium clones. "We released the instruction set a year ago; it provides a very detailed description of Itanium’s behavior," he says. The new specifications will not give the competitors much more information for creating a clone.

While this announcement is in line with the open-source ethic of freely sharing information, Intel is not explicitly catering to this community. "We’re committing to enabling a broad developer community," Waxman says. "Even Microsoft is going to be taking advantage of this."

The newly released specifications focus on performance enhancing features built into the Itanium. The instruction set allowed full functionality for software written for Itanium. These new documents, however, will allow developers to make code as efficient as possible.

Intel expects developers of operating systems and compilers to use the information, which is particularly important to compiler vendors whose customers want optimized code. If a compiler does not use the features, applications written on the compiler will not be as efficient as possible.

Although Itanium’s move from a 32-bit to a 64-bit architecture is a major step in processor technology, the implementation of Itanium will not be as problematic as one might expect. Yes, code written for Pentium or other architectures will run slower on Itanium, but vendors simply need to recompile the software for Itanium. "It’s not as big as people make it out to be," Waxman says.

Intel may be losing the ability to leverage its technology partners for marketing purposes. Since the information is not dependent on special relationships between vendors, Intel cannot call upon these vendors for marketing assistance. Waxman believes that this is the least of Intel’s worries: "We’re still an ecosystem of vendors working together."

Waxman suggests that, if anything, it is a viral marketing approach: The information passed around the Internet about Itanium can only increase interest in the product. "Open source is very efficient in the way this interest is generated," he says.

Intel plans to begin full manufacturing of Itanium in the third quarter of this year, shipping the processors to OEMs soon after. Users’ desires for Itanium machines will be abated by the end of the year.

Although Intel is aiding all developers, not just the open source faithful, Itanium’s first operating system is Trillian, an open source flavor of Linux. The source code for Trillian was released in February, and will be tweaked as long as developers care to. Windows 2000 for Itanium is expected when Itanium ships.