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ARM chippies cooperate on Linux

Big Blue backs Linaro

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Does the Linux operating system need yet another distro? No. But a bunch of people interested in the ARM RISC processors used in mobile computers and netbooks — and hopefully someday soon inside of servers just to scare the hell out of Intel — are ganging up to create a unified foundation for ARM-based distros called Linaro.

At the Computex trade show in Tapei, Taiwan today, Freescale Semiconductor, IBM, Samsung, ST-Ericsson, and Texas Instruments announced a non-profit software company called Linaro, which they are funding to create a single foundation for ARM-specific Linux variants. This is not a distro tuned for the complex x64 architecture and the devices it serves, but for the simpler (and many would argue more elegant) ARM processors that are taking over the IT business from a new bottom, as Intel's x86 and then x64 chips (with a little help from Advanced Micro Devices) had been doing for the past several decades.

(Just a question: Why not call it Linarmux? Or Linarmour?)

As operating systems go, Linux has probably been ported to more platforms than any other, and there are already a number of Linuxes that run on ARM chips, as the British chip designer explains here. These include Ubuntu (also British, coming from Canonical), with the generic Debian from which Ubuntu is derived also supporting ARM.

Red Hat's Fedora has an ARM version, but it is not commercialized (yet) as Enterprise Linux, and Maemo, Movial Thundersoft do ARM-based Linuxes too. And there are already a plethora of Linuxes for sundry "liliputers," as someone has cleverly called them, including Android, LiMo, MeeGo, and webOS. And lest we forget, Windows is also trying to muscle its way into here and Apple has iPhone OS, a derivative of its Mac OS (itself a variant of Unix).

Why not just knight one of these as the Linux of choice for ARM? Because ARM is not a chip so much as an architecture that allows chip and device vendors to heavily customize it to suit their needs. It is a very hippie culture, and hence El Reg's reference to ARM enthusiasts as "chippies."

Just as ARM (the company) is the focal point of all the different — and increasing — numbers of ARM processor designs, Linaro hopes to be the focal point for Linux kernel and stack development for ARM, with bits and pieces being adopted by various Linux distros as they see fit. The idea is to have Linaro work on the low-level stuff that makes the best use of ARM processor features to squeeze performance out of the Linux kernel and let Linux distros and vendors who make their own distros for their own devices do the higher level stuff where they can differentiate.

Why IBM gives a care about embedded Linux devices is a bit unclear, but perhaps Big Blue is hoping to be a bigger foundry for ARM devices as they eat into its embedded Power processor business, should this come to pass. (IBM already makes some ARM chips on behalf of customers, and probably is trying to figure out an angle for its Rational development tools to help companies code applications for ARM-Linux devices).

Freescale, Samsung, ST-Micro, and TI create ARM-derived system-on-chip designed for a number of handheld and embedded devices, and along with IBM, they're kicking in several tens of millions of dollars to pay the 80 employees at Linaro to knock an underlying, common Linux for ARM into shape. (ST-Ericsson is a partnership between chip maker ST-Micro and telecom equipment maker Ericsson).

Linaro is slated to get a variant of its Linux guts for the Cortex-A ARM chips — plus development tools to help Linux distros and device makers tweak the platform — out the door by this November.

Correction: This story originally gave the impression that Linaro was its own distribution, which it is not. Rather, is the the foundation of an ARM-based Linux that Linux distributors can adopt. ®

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