Open Source Development: A Platform Perspective

by Wen-Hann Wang
with Geoff Koch

Introduction

When conditions are right, markets can rapidly soak up new technology. It happened with WiFi in San Francisco. It’s happening, albeit on a larger scale, with open source software. And in both cases, Intel is a key yet sometimes overlooked contributor.

Consider a map of the San Francisco peninsula prior to the 2003 launch of Intel® Centrino® mobile technology. Despite some clustering in the city’s northeast neighborhoods, coverage is relatively sparse.

Today, after three years of momentum for Intel’s wireless mobile computing technology, the same map shows a sea of WiFi hotspots.

By investing in technology, marketing and industry partnerships, Intel contributed to San Francisco’s rapid WiFi rollout. Intel plays this role in a host of other computing industry contexts as well, including the emergent ecosystem of open source software platforms.

Intel is adding processor features, working with industry fellow travelers and making sure open source software runs best on its silicon – all consistent with a longstanding commitment to innovation.


Innovation: Always the Industry’s Engine

Through the decades, innovation has expanded the boundaries of the computer industry. The 1960s and 1970s were the era of mainframes and minicomputers tended by a small handful of IT wizards. The 1980s produced the PC, which democratized computers for average business and home users. The 1990s linked computing and communication via the Internet and World Wide Web. And the 2000s are marked by mobility and Web services.

At least three trends are apparent in this cursory treatment of computing history. One is the impact of open platforms and standardization. In the mainframe era, a few big companies offered complete soup-to-nuts computing solutions, including proprietary hardware, software and service. Customer choice was limited to picking a particular vendor, such as IBM, Burroughs or Honeywell. Technology from one vendor rarely worked with that of another.

It took PCs to mold the industry into its current contours. Technology standardized and PCs were built mostly with off-the-shelf processors, motherboards, operating systems, databases and applications. Subsequently, customer choice increased – a phenomenon that continues today.

The second trend is that computing power, thanks to Moore’s Law, becomes faster and cheaper at a regular clip. The Intel 8080 processor shipped in 1974 with 6,000 transistors working at a clock speed of 2 megahertz. The 8080 was used in the Altair, arguably the world’s first computing device for hobbyists.

A quarter century later, the Intel® Pentium® 4 processor launched with 42 million processors working at a clock speed of 1.5 gigahertz. Ongoing architectural innovations at Intel, including the move to multi-core chip architectures, will continue to deliver the benefits of Moore’s Law well into the future.

 The third and most subtle trend is that innovation is driven by everyday end-users. During the mainframe and minicomputer years, new hardware and software features were developed by a small coterie of engineers working for a small number of vendors that were pursuing a small number of big business or government computing contracts. Today, more and more innovation comes from the myriad hobbyists and enthusiasts at the tech-savvy edges of the computing ecosystem.

Open source software developers long have been one of the primary examples of this edge-driven innovation. The norms of the open source community – working in loose coordination to solve problems, pursuing rapid prototyping and releases, and quickly and efficiently disseminating information and code – once seemed like quaint, semi-serious novelties.

However, as open source successes began piling up, people took a closer at the community and its ability to innovate. Open source successes at the project level include the GNU operating system, the Linux* kernel, the Eclipse* integrated development environment and the Apache Web Server* software. Looking deeper into any of these projects reveals the scope of open source craftsmanship.

Consider Apache, which has produced much ubiquitous though behind-the-scenes software. Among the examples:

  • HTTPd*, or HTTP daemon, is a software program that serves up about 70 percent of the Web traffic on the Internet.
  • Apache Ant* and Maven* are Java software tools that today build most of the world’s Java projects.
  • Xerces* and Xalan* are industry standard software packages for parsing, manipulating and implementing XML and XSLT – general-purpose markup languages.

 

These are astonishing successes. A significant amount of the plumbing for the Web, arguably one of the most transforming technologies ever produced by human culture, has emerged from the loosely organized code of programmers working in a range of environments – from universities to multinational companies.

Much of this work, however, is invisible to average computer users composing documents and presentations, sending and receiving email, and searching for information online. These users are motivated to find quick and productive ways to solve basic computing problems – which is why providing integrated everyday computing solutions is the next goal for the open source community and its many industry collaborators, including Intel.


Intel and Open Source

Intel is motivated to work with the open source community for several reasons. First, business* and government* customers in developed markets are turning to open source software in greater numbers. Second, in emerging markets, open source software is often a requirement, particularly among government customers. And Intel believes open source software to be a key driver of industry innovation, which is why Intel has been a behind-the-scenes supporter of open source software development for years.

Intel’s support is manifested in part by implementing new processor and platform capabilities with an eye toward open source. Through the TianoCore* community, Intel is driving open source work around the Extensible Firmware Interface, or EFI – the layer between the operating system and the Intel platform firmware. Intel also is facilitatin g open source efforts* to deliver a high performance InfiniBand* (IB) software stack for Linux. IB is an Intel co-developed high-speed serial computer bus essential to performance-focused computer cluster applications.

Beyond open sourcing a few of its homegrown technologies, Intel has contributed to several projects originating from the wider open source community. Intel engineers are active participants in ongoing work on the Xen* virtual machine monitor, which allows for several operating system instances to be run on a single computer; the GNU Compiler Collection*, or GCC – the standard compiler for the free Unix*-like operating systems, and for certain proprietary operating systems such as Mac OS* X; the Linux Standard Base, or LSB – the joint project to standardize the internal structure of Linux-based operating systems; and several other projects.

Intel also is supporting the Eclipse Foundation, in which the open source community is working on a vendor-neutral development platform and application frameworks for building software. As a Strategic Developer Member, Intel is a major contributor of technology to Eclipse. And Intel has adapted some of its own software tools – the Intel® C++ Compiler and Intel® Performance Analyzer – for Eclipse technology.


Open Source Software Platforms Maximize Innovations

Along with Microsoft Visual Studio*, Eclipse today is one of the dominant integrated development environments. This success is just one example of how aggregating individual open source components can yield a platform with a value greater than the sum of its parts.

“Platform” is one of those unfortunate technology buzzwords bantered about so frequently and in so many contexts that it is tough to define. Certainly, the open source software platform includes software up and down the stack, from subterranean firmware lodged between the operating system and the processor to familiar end-user applications for browsing the Web and composing documents.

The platform also includes the various projects and groups – Eclipse, the Open Source Development Lab (OSDL*), PHP: Hypertext Processor (PHP*), the Free Software Foundation (FSF*), the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS*), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C*), the Apache Software Foundation (ASF*), and so on – comprising the open source community.

And the platform must highlight the fact that all software development, including open source, is fast becoming a globally distributed endeavor. In 2005, for example, the 12 institutions atop the world’s premier international college programming contest came from seven countries, including China, Canada, Russia and Romania. Contest sponsor IBM reports that since 1997, participation has tripled and team participation has increased by a factor of five.

How does Intel fit into this big-picture view? One way is by providing the core hardware technologies – microprocessors, chipsets, boards and systems – that for 15 years have run most of the world’s open source software. The first version of the Linux operating environment was posted on the Internet by Linus Torvalds in 1991. A year later, a fully functional Linux operating system was runn ing on Intel x86 processors. The academic community did much of the early Linux development on the Intel® architecture platform.

Intel also provides a variety of resources for hands-on open source software developers. Linux versions of its compilers, performance libraries and analyzers, and cluster and threading tools are available for sale through the Intel® Software Development Products Web site. Several of these products are available for free for developers writing software on their own time without compensation. Other free resources – including training, community discussion boards and technical content – are available via http://software.intel.com.

In addition to helping the hands-on crowd, Intel supports IT and line-of-business managers tasked with building and maintaining integrated technology solutions. One example is the work of Intel® Solution Services, the worldwide professional services organization offering consulting that’s focused on architecture transitions. Another example is the free searchable library of case studies and solution blueprints, a rich source of real-life success stories and preconfigured, repeatable solutions – several of which are centered on open source software.

By working with other companies and placing strategic investments, Intel influences industry trends, as well. Intel has formed strategic alliances with leading solution providers to deliver open, flexible, and cost-effective solutions. And through Intel Capital, one of the largest venture capital entities in the world, Intel helps to develop industry standard solutions, drive global Internet growth, facilitate new usage models, and advance computing and communications.

In short, traces of Intel are everywhere on today’s open source software landscape. The map is fast filling up with examples of innovation and collaboration, much like the map showing the WiFi wave washing over the San Francisco peninsula. And whether it’s scattered WiFi outposts to seamless WiFi availability, or dispersed open source projects to more integrated open source solutions, the lesson is the same – when conditions are right, markets can tip suddenly toward new technologies.

How fast? Find out by collaborating with Intel on imagining the future of open source software. It’s a future in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Through global collaborative open source development, the best is yet to come.


About the Authors

Dr. Wen-Hann Wang is General Manager of Managed Run Time Division of the Intel Software and Solution Group. He joined Intel in 1991, and made significant contributions to the P6 (Intel® Pentium® Pro) Platform and P6 product family. In addition, Wen-Hann's platform architecture and analysis work was instrumental in the creation of the Intel® Xeon® server processor product line. Prior to joining Intel, Wen-Hann was a Research Staff Member at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center.

Geoff Koch is a science and technology journalist in Lansing, Mich. He recently profiled George Moakley, a senior manager with Intel Solution Services, in an article for software.intel.com.


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