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Open source tips for Intel and AMD

A little chipset war never hurt anyone

My teens and early 20s occurred during the pop psychology age that introduced us to I'm OK, You're OK, a book by Thomas Harris, and transactional analysis. One of my favorite authors of the genre was Dr. Eric Berne, who wrote an interesting book called Games People Play. I mention all this because I'm about to play one of those games, which Berne identified as "Let's you and him fight." It's a game where you ignite a conflict between others and then sit back and watch with glee as they battle it out.

My first contestants, should they decide to accept the challenge, are AMD and Intel. I love to watch these chipmeisters wage war. Thanks to the competitive challenges posed by AMD with its Athlon series of chips, the price/performance in CPU chips and supporting chipsets offered by both these companies is phenomenal. I picked up a 1-GHz Athlon a couple months ago for well under $300. I'm almost afraid to find out how much the faster chips are selling for now, lest the speed greed demon bite me yet again.

The catalyst for the fight is some advice I'd like to offer these two competitors on how each might leverage open source to attempt to beat the other. The operative word here is attempt, however. Ideally, I don't want either company to actually subdue the other for any extended period of time, since the ongoing competition is what keeps prices low and performance high.

Enough beating around the bush. Here's the advice: Go for broke this year and invest heavily in open source. Specifically, devote as many resources as possible for tuning optimizations in the GNU compilers to produce code that runs best with your chips. I'm not talking about bolstering generic 686 optimizations. I'm talking about chip-specific optimizations that a developer would activate with a compilation flag such as -O Athlon, -O Duron, -O Thunderbird, or -O PentiumWhatever. Heck, these companies should even add some new processor instructions unique to their individual CPUs, and then use the optimization flags to make the compiler use these extra instructions. If it improves performance, why not?

Then AMD and/or Intel should post benchmarks demonstrating how much faster Linux and the various BSDs run when you rebuild them using these optimizations and run them on specific AMD or Intel hardware. Ideally, the benchmarks should be geared toward ISP, ASP, and database performance.

Then these companies could convince one or more of the commercial Linux and BSD distributors to offer versions of their products that are optimized specifically for certain high-performance chips. Better yet, Intel and/or AMD could rebuild a handful of distributions and then offer the CD-ROM images free for the download. If the performance gains were significant, I guarantee you'd witness instant word-of-mouth advertising and a run on whatever motherboards were best for the chips in question. (A tip to these companies: If you do compile your own distributions, don't forget that you have to rebuild all of the applications, not just the kernel, in order to make this strategy worthwhile and attractive to potential customers.)

Most important is this advice: Get started on the above strategies immediately, because all of the external factors are aligning perfectly for this move to produce great market gains.

Economic sag

In the first place, open source is about to get a very big boost because the dot-com economy is tanking. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but open source guru Bruce Perens was right when he recently observed that a slow economy presents the best opportunities for open source. (Please see Resources for more information.) Free software is where you turn when you no longer have money to burn. That's exactly the position the dot-coms find themselves in right now. The dot-coms aren't floundering because the opportunities aren't there. They're floundering because they got spoiled on the irrational exuberance of investors and didn't learn how to spend their money wisely. Open source is in a perfect position to benefit from the lessons in frugality that these companies will now have to learn.

Second, Linux and possibly the BSDs are going to get a lot more attention and updates this year. The long-awaited Linux 2.4 kernel was just released, and minor kernel updates are sure to follow quickly. So watch for a flood of new versions as the commercial distributors line up to get their versions of Linux with the 2.4 kernel out the door. Then expect a second round of distribution bug-fix updates later this year. Shoot for that round of updates. If you can get your compiler optimizations finished and tested by midyear, you'll be in a perfect position to flaunt benchmarks at the fall lineup of Linux trade shows. Make a compelling pitch to buy and use your hardware in order to get the best performance out of the latest versions of Linux and the BSDs.

Finally, do it now, because you can. And credit this fact to the nature of open source.

This strategy would be unthinkable with Windows. Even if Intel and/or AMD were willing to do all the hard work, these companies would have to convince Microsoft to offer several versions of Windows 2000, or at least several installation options. It would take a lot of wheeling and dealing to get Microsoft to go along with something like that, especially if there were a chance that this change would be unstable or difficult to maintain. Microsoft would surely request large sums of money from the chip companies just to consider this approach. Whether or not that would prove to be a risky investment, it would require Intel and AMD to shell out more than just programmer power. They'd have to shell out bucks in the hope that someone would purchase their chipsets specifically to get the extra performance of the special Windows version.

With Linux, on the other hand, all Intel or AMD has to do in getting started is submit patches to GNU Compiler Collection (GCC). (Please see Resources for more information.) Quality assurance is inherent within the open source development process. And the only thing AMD and Intel need to invest is effort. While it would be possible to cut deals with commercial distributions, it wouldn't be necessary. As I suggested above, these chip companies could simply post optimized distributions on a server and let people download them.

Heck, this contest doesn't even have to be limited to AMD and Intel, although that's where the fireworks would likely be prettiest. Regardless, AMD and Intel, admit it. It's a compelling strategy, isn't it? At least one of you could get a leg up on the other this way. Now that I've suggested a strategy, AMD and Intel, let's see you fight over which one does it first and best.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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