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64-bit Unix initiative launched

Intel-prompted consortium hopes to set standards for next-generation Unix

September  1995
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Unix vendors got together in August to standardize 64-bit operating systems in the hopes of enticing more ISVs to write applications for their systems.

Surprisingly, Intel is the driving force behind the unnamed consortium, which hopes to release a preliminary set of APIs for 64-bit Unix operating systems by the end of the year. Other participants include all the major Unix vendors and many ISVs as well. If the APIs are widely adopted, ISVs stand to gain the most. They will spend less time porting their programs from platform to platform. The result could be more software available on a wider variety of Unix systems -- and possibly better-tuned and updated more often, all good news for users of Unix systems.

"If there's a common environment, we can spend time adding value for customers rather than doing porting work," said David Sohm, vice president of channels and product marketing for Sybase Inc. of Emeryville, CA. "It will [accelerate] our time to market and lower our cost for development."

"We feel this is a real good move for us, that it will make our applications easier to port from one platform to another, making more applications available for end users," said Mark Poth, platform manager for Hewlett-Packard and IBM for Cadence Design Systems of San Jose, Calif.

The consortium is likely to have the biggest impact in the Unix on Intel market, the small world of Unix operating systems from The Santa Cruz Operation, AT&T, Novell, and others that run on Intel boxes. In this highly fragmented market, application vendors who write for one of these operating systems have to port their programs to run on the others, even though the operating systems run on the same Intel hardware.

In the more traditional workstation market of Unix-on-RISC-chips, by contrast, each hardware architecture has one API, both supplied by one company, such as Sun Microsystems Inc., Digital Equipment Corp., or IBM. Intel says it isn't trying to grow the market for Unix or even Unix on Intel, but rather ensure that it is able to compete effectively for whatever Unix business exists.

"We don't look at this as yet another unification of Unix; we look at it as opening the door to yet another high end market, a 64-bit market [for Intel]," said Richard Wirt, an Intel fellow. "A year ago, Intel and [Hewlett-Packard Co.] announced that they had joint technology work going on that would lead us to 64 bit. Therefore it's in our interest to begin to see operating systems, applications, and tools begin to be developed to support 64-bit architectures. In order for our architecture to be successful, we need a broad array of ISV and application support. Typically that's easier to get if there are standards, so those applications run across more machines from different OEMs," he said.

Intel and HP may later work toward source-level compatibility of Unix operating systems that run on Intel, instead of just the binary compatibility this API aims at, said Billie Abrams, HP advanced technology planning manager. "What we would like to see happen is some consolidation of Unixes on the Intel architecture. That's our goal," she said. In the future, HP and Intel may create an application binary interface, similar to the ABIs from PowerOpen or HP Pro, to ensure that all software written to the ABI will run on the Intel platform, she added.


What's in it for Unix vendors?
The group of Unix vendors whose operating systems run on their own RISC architectures were brought into the consortium to widen the number of platforms ISVs will have access to when they write to the 64-bit APIs, Abrams said. "The bottom line is that Unix carries the perception of fragmentation, and to a large degree, that's the reality," she said.

The 64-bit APIs will broaden the commonality between Unix operating systems regardless of which hardware architectures they run on. The APIs will carry forward the 32-bit APIs that the Unix world has already established under spec 1170 and, in addition, the 64-bit APIs will address additional functions, many specific to a 64-bit operating system, said Bill Sandve, IBM program director for AIX strategy and business development.

Unix vendors will probably be able to add additional capabilities on top of the ones specified in the APIs, but the goal will be to extend the APIs enough that it offers a compelling number of functions for ISVs to write to, said Intel's Wirt. If all the vendors adopt the APIs, then they will compete on overall system (hardware and software combined) implementation and performance, service, and support, rather than offering functions not available in other operating systems, Abrams said.

This time, this marriage will last
Past efforts to unify Unix have been criticized as ineffective and too slow, but participants say this API is likely to succeed because of Intel's leadership and because most 64-bit systems haven't been defined yet. Past efforts attempted to standardize software already on the market, participants said.

"Typically in the past, regardless of what operating system you talk about, vendors have gotten together after the fact, after competing approaches have already been put out there, and coming up with standards has taken a long time because there's a lot of wrangling and the standards don't map into what users already have out there running," said Bob Price, marketing manager in Digital's Unix marketing organization.

Digital and Silicon Graphics both already offer 64-bit operating systems and hardware, but the other companies are just beginning to define theirs. The API effort could bog down if the rest of the consortium prefers to implement something other than what Digital and SGI already have as the standard, however. One possible bone of contention is the size of an integer, which Digital already defines as 32 bits, but others believe would be better defined as 64 bits. "There is some conflict there," said Wirt, "but we will come to one conclusion and not fragment the market." If the group decides on a 32-bit integer length, the transition can be made in software rather than requiring users to move to new hardware, Wirt said.

"We don't think the [specification] will be dramatically different from what we are doing today, but it doesn't mean we won't have to do some work," Digital's Price said. "We're fairly confident that it won't be disruptive to our customers and software partners."

If any companies do drop out after the specification is released at the end of the year, Intel will continue the effort with its HP PRO and Intel OEM partners, Abrams said. The specification will be submitted to X/Open at the end of the year to be formalized. Participants declined to say when they will make their operating systems compliant with the specification, if they choose to do so, but three years from now is likely.

"It would not be surprising to me that within six to 12 months from the first [formalized] set of APIs, most vendors will be compliant," said IBM's Sandve. "We will incorporate formal standards as soon as we have a release that can pick them up." Participants said that users should not expect to see full 64-bit systems, applications, and hardware available until the end of the decade.

Sixty-four-bit systems are already making an appearance in isolated areas, where customers need the added bandwidth -- translating into better performance -- that 64-bit systems provide. These include data mining, video servers, and Internet servers. Users can also expect to see database vendors implement 64-bit applications fairly quickly. The broader bandwidth of 64-bit systems is helpful not only in increasing performance but in processing data that comes in chunks larger than 32 bits, as is the case with video. --Cate Corcoran ( is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.

--Cate Corcoran

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