With Intels midmonth announcement of a Linux version of its VTune Performance Analyzer (see www.intel.com/vtune), the company faces—and even embraces—the open-source threat to the Wintel axis.
Spending time with VTune, looking under the hood at whats happening to code when it runs, makes a person recognize two things. First, a Pentium-family chip is an extraordinary machine; it keeps a scary number of plates spinning at once, while still making computing look as easy to most programmers as it was when a simple flowchart could describe what was going on.
Second, though, comes the painful discovery that there are a lot of ways to do things wrong—not producing incorrect results but wasting the processors power by creating worst-case scenarios instead of writing code that really moves. For example, branches in code are a bad thing on a Pentium 4 chip, with its 20-stage pipeline that needs to be refilled if the processor guesses wrong about which way the flow will go. VTune helps make the most of hardware—you remember, the stuff Intel sells.
When it was part of my job to specify PC configurations, back when a 386 was a hot box, we expected to spend about half as much on the software as on the hardware for a single desktop. That meant a $3,000 PC, plus DOS, Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and dBASE III to be fully outfitted for basic needs. There was plenty of room in that budget for Intel and Microsoft to thrive.
That 2-1 rule continues to hold up pretty well today, but now were talking about a $700 PC and a $350 office suite—and Intel would like to keep selling a $300 chip as the heart of a desktop PC. That doesnt leave much in the budget for a power supply, a hard disk, some memory chips, maybe even a keyboard and a display.
If Linux software developers can deliver top-tier performance, the cost of that $700 PC doesnt need to include $100 or more in Windows licensing fees, and that additional buying power can look in Intels direction—which must be a comforting thought for a company that wants to stay in the chips.
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