Intel Doubles Down on Linux

Linux might thrive on dispersed development, but Intel has centralized its push to support the operating system in an effort to see where it should go next.

Intel is asking itself whats next for Linux.

The chip giant recently pulled its disparate efforts to work with the operating system. Those efforts span programs aimed at notebooks, desktops, servers, storage and vertical markets such as telecommunications, together under one roof, creating a Linux Program Office, run by its Software and Solutions Group.

Intel created the office, one of several it maintains for major efforts such as working with Microsoft Corp., as a single point of contact between it and the wider Linux community.

The move comes as Linux is growing in importance to businesses that most often use the operating system on their Intel-processor servers. Thus Intel intends to help make sure the OS runs well on its hardware.

"We said, Lets get the team together and be more thoughtful of the way we work with the community," said Renee James, vice president of Intels Software and Solutions Group.

"Its a natural maturing of the way we think about open source and the community," she said. "One thing you havent seen from Intel is a really strong voice in some of the [open source] communities."

But its also a time when software is becoming more strategic for Intels overall product development strategy. Late last year Intel shifted from selling individual parts toward creating product platforms around its chips. Intels platforms, which range from wireless notebooks and business desktops on up to dual-core processor servers with built-in virtualization capabilities, always include at least one special feature.

Software is typically the key to making the special features work, thus cementing the platform together.

Centrino, Intels platform for wireless notebooks, focuses on cutting notebooks network cables.

Intels software group created Windows applications and Linux drivers to assist the platform. Future platforms for businesses, which will include elements such as processors with built-in virtualization, will require still more work, including interfacing with third parties.

Although its known as a hardware maker, Intel has become more involved in software over time. Intel has increased the number of software engineers it employs to more than 5,000.

The chipmaker is continuing its traditional software efforts, such as providing drivers with its chip sets, but many of the engineers are now working on its newer efforts.

"Linux activity [at Intel] has increased in the last couple of years as Linux has grown in the enterprise," James said.

"As a platform company, all OS environments are important to us. The Linux activity is really about our platform enabling. I dont perceive there to be a tremendous signal of change" there.

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To add to its Linux effort, Intel has also recently hired two well-known Linux experts, Dirk Hohndel and Danese Cooper.

Hohndel, who serves as director of Linux and open-source strategy at Intel, is part of the program office.

Cooper is senior director of open-source strategy for Intels Channel Software Operation.

Together, they can serve as ambassadors of sorts, gathering more direct feedback from developers and helping the company to better discern how it should participate in Linux development going forward, James said.

Having people like Cooper and Hohndel on its side is likely to give Intel greater credibility with at least some in the Linux community.

Despite matters such as Advanced Micro Devices Inc.s antitrust lawsuit against it, Intel is seen as having helped Linux, said Eric Raymond, co-founder of the Open Source Initiative.

"We tend to be distrustful of vendors as dominant as Intel is, because their attempts to lock in market control are invariably bad for open source," Raymond said in an e-mail to Ziff Davis Internet.

"Thus, youll see most of us rooting for AMD [Advanced Micro Devices Inc] to win the antitrust suit its mounting —and that would be true even if we didnt think AMD chips are technically superior."

But, Intel should get credit for lowering hardware costs, which Raymond said was an essential element for open-source development to thrive and for working with Linux despite its ties to Microsoft.

Aside from writing Linux software—it wrote Linux drivers for Centrino, for example—Intel has also worked on broader efforts, such as assisting resellers in emerging computer markets by creating kits for building Linux desktops.

The Software Groups Channel Software Operation pulled together the kit, dubbed Intels Quick Start Kit for Linux. Its essentially a recipe for putting a Linux desktop together.

Intel created the kit for markets such as China, India and Latin America, where government and educational institutions are particularly interested in Linux.

Still, Intels Linux efforts are only one part of its broader software efforts.

The software group has also been working with third parties to get features such as hardware security and virtualization, where Intel chips contain elements necessary to help partition servers to run different software, ready for prime time.

Although she declined to discuss the effort in detail, James said the software group has been working with third parties to help ensure virtualization software works well with the hardware virtualization that will come in its chips. The first such processor to hit the market will be the dual-core Itanium 2 chip, dubbed Montecito. It will ship later this year.

But the company must still be careful how it addresses the new technologies, particularly those related to security or digital rights management, within the Linux community. DRM, which is generally seen as a method to control or restrict the use multimedia files on PCs, isnt a popular idea in the community, Raymond said.

"I dont think it makes business sense for Intel to push DRM heavily, because Linux is driving the hottest growth sectors in their market," Raymond said. "But if they decide to go that direction, the open-source communitys attitude towards Intel is going to turn very hostile very quickly."

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