Archive for February, 2012

The 64-bit revolution

2012-02-03

Basically, wtf happened here? It’s 2012 and I’m chastised (a bit) on Twitter for installing 64-bit Ubuntu on my 64-bit laptop.

It’s 1993 and as a graduate student in the Computer Lab I get an account on the shared Unix server. A DEC Alpha, running OSF/1. The Alpha was a true 64-bit chip, no 32-bit heritage in its history, no 32-bit mode, and basically no 32-bit arithmetic instructions. Everything was 64-bit, no hostages. As a C programmer this is quite funny. int was still 32-bit (with the usual compiler flags). It was clear that the Alpha with its elegant, very RISC, instruction set was an example a new breed of processor architecture.

In 1994 I started my first job and in the next few years I use and program a variety of 64-bit architectures. The Alpha, UltraSPARC, 64-bit MIPS; I read up on various others (HP PA-RISC 2.0, POWER/PowerPC), because it was clear that the future was one where everyone had a 64-bit RISC workstation on their desk. Unix was clearly the only operating system with a chance of running on 64-bit architectures; sure, I saw, and used briefly, Windows NT running on Alpha, but it was a sorry effort. A 32-bit port of NT onto a 64-bit architecture. Microsoft/Intel were barely making it on 32-bit architectures, never mind 64-bit.

When Intel’s IA-64 architecture came out, I read the manuals. It was clear that: a) Intel hadn’t been paying attention; and, b) no-one would be able to write a decent C compiler for this architecture.

What happens next? I really don’t know. Sun got sucked into Java and took their eye off the ball, every other manufacturer canned their 64-bit line or sold to someone who didn’t care, Intel’s efforts to actually implement their IA-64 architecture (Itanium) were indeed a massive failure, and Intel had to piss away the R&D for 2 or 3 entire generations of CPU design. The amazing thing is that even though Intel basically failed to innovate for like a decade (between Pentium Pro and Core) everyone worshipped them and gave Intel enough time (aka money) to steal their new 64-bit strategy from their competitor AMD. They had the DEC designers, and the fabs, and they eventually produced Core, which was actually pretty good from a hardware perspective. But still based on the awful Intel software architecture.

Which is where we are now.

Does anyone have any idea why all the very sensible and nice 64-bit architectures (SPARC, Alpa, MIPS, PowerPC, not PA-RISC) all failed basically together?

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