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64-bit Itanic gets 32-bit tune-up

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Intel has changed course with regard to 32-bit software support on the Itanium processor, saying it now plans to help speed up the code in future versions of the chip.

When Itanic first appeared the support for 32-bit applications was, shall we say, minimal. Intel's 64-bit behemoth had been primarily designed to run 64-bit code, and x86 would soon become a distant memory.

Engineers working on the first Itanium told us that the chip could run a 32-bit word processor with modest success, but that the buck stopped there. They went on to add that it would be very difficult to have 32-bit applications cook on Itanium because helping such software along would require an already massive chip to grow even larger.

Times change, dies shrink, and Intel now plans to introduce something called the IA-32 Execution Layer - codenamed btrans - later this year, likely when the Madison and Deerfield chips arrive.

One could have discovered this information at Spring IDF when Intel made a presentation on the technology. Congratulations to Stephen Shankland for picking up on the information at CNET today.

Intel spokeswoman Barbara Grimes said the company has been working with Microsoft and Linux makers for some time to try and get the 32-bit accelerator code into their operating systems.

Support at the kernel level is needed for btrans but Linus Torvalds is not so bullish about the prospects for Itanium.

We do know that btrans "is initiated inside of an operating system and when an IA-32 app is launched it translates the 32-bit code into native 64-bit code," Grimes told us.

The emulator has been benchmarked by Intel and appears to run code at speeds equivalent to a 1.5GHz Xeon MP chip. Grimes, however, added that speeds fluctuate quite a bit. Intel has seen performance improvements of between ten per cent and 100 per cent over the current 32-bit software support on Itanium, depending on the type of application.

Intel sees btrans as a way for users to bridge a gap between 32-bit and 64-bit code as they migrate to Itanium. Intel executives rarely talked about running 32-bit code on Itanium when it first launched, but have been more vocal about the feature in recent months.

Users have adopted Itanic at a very slow pace, and this could be an indication that Intel had to address some pressing concerns to help spur the chip along. This does seem to make binary compatibility attractive, doesn't it? ®

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