November 23, 2023

Will anyone save Linux on Itanium processors? Absolutely not !

The Fall of Itanium: The Controversial Path of an Innovative Architecture and Its Repercussions on the Future of Linux Support

The Intel Itanium was an ambitious project launched by Intel, also known as “Itanic”, aimed at redefining microprocessor architecture. Its history begins in the 90s, when Intel introduced the concept of EPIC (Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing). This revolutionary idea was based on Out of Order Execution (OoOE) in microprocessors, which allowed complex x86 instructions to be broken down into smaller, RISC-like parts, rearranged on the fly to execute as fast as possible, and then reassembled the results in the order expected by the software.

In 1994, it was unclear whether future x86 processors would be able to effectively exploit Instruction Level Parallelism (ILP). Intel, therefore, opted for a different approach: rather than relying on significant improvements in CPU design to execute existing code, it chose to have the compiler do this work ahead of time, designing a new instruction set with Words of Very Long Instruction Words (VLIW) to make this operation possible.

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However, despite its innovative premises, Itanium has encountered numerous challenges. One of the main criticisms of the Itanium architecture was its complexity and inefficiency in handling legacy x86 code. Furthermore, the market has moved in other directions, with the consolidation and evolution of the x86 architecture, which has continued to dominate the sector.

As the years went by, support for Itanium declined significantly, as did sales.

Itanium_Sales

The fate of Linux on Itanium now seems sealed, and there seems to be no hope of rescue. This conclusion, however inevitable, hides a fascinating and nuanced story behind it.

Support for Intel's IA64 architecture was recently removed from the Linux kernel, sparking a series of complaints and passionate discussions. Although an initial proposal to remove support for Intel's infamous Itanium architecture, nicknamed “Itanic,” was rejected in February, just a few weeks ago in October, this decision was approved for the 6.7 kernel. As expected, this raised the ire of some, and was considered by many to be a bad move. LWN published an excellent analysis on this topic, titled “The Push to Save Itanium.” https://lwn.net/SubscriberLink/950466/0999d63fdf270781/ 

Linus Torvalds Linux

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, responded in turn, stating that he is willing to resurrect support for Itanium, despite personally loathing architecture, criticizing it for being based on faulty design premises and decisions influenced more by politics than by solid technical foundations.

His rather modest and reasonable proposal was summarized by @mewse on Lobsters: "You, who still want this architecture, keep a patch set out of the main branch for the architecture for a year and we will consider making it main again.” In other words, if the people who are complaining about the need for more time for this change suddenly find the time to modernize the code they don't want removed, then it could be added back. However, this seems unlikely to happen, and many know it.

Intel's EPIC project – which stands for Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing – was a revolutionary idea in the world of microprocessors. Out-of-order execution (OoOE) was a new concept for x86 processors at the time, allowing complex x86 instructions to be broken down into smaller, RISC-like segments, rearranged in real time to execute as fast as possible, and then reassembled the results in the order the software originally expected them. In 1994, it was unclear whether future x86 processors would be capable of effectively exploiting instruction-level parallelism (ILP) in machine codes. As a result, rather than relying on significant improvements in CPU design to run existing code, it seemed safer to have the compiler do this work up front, by designing a whole new set of instructions with Very Long Instruction Words (VLIW) to make this is possible.

The history of Itanium is that of an ambitious project which, despite its innovative premises, encountered numerous challenges and failed to keep pace with market and technology developments, leading to its gradual obsolescence and the recent decision to remove its supported by the Linux kernel.

It really seems over.

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