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Advanced chip opens door to software choice

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A computer chip designed to run more than one operating system at a time could break Microsoft's stranglehold on PC software. Plans for the chip were announced last week by Intel, the world's largest maker of processor chips.

Due for launch within five years, the chip will allow future machines to run, say, Windows XP together with Linux or the Apple operating system as easily as today's Windows computers run Word and Internet Explorer simultaneously. Analysts are saying it could be one of the decade's most significant breakthroughs in computer technology.

An operating system (OS) is the software that manages a computer's physical components, including the microprocessor, hard drive and memory. The OS keeps track of how much memory or disc space is available, for instance, and acts as a gatekeeper, allowing programs such as Word access to, say, the hard disc.

Two or more operating systems running on the same hardware would inevitably clash, say, when trying to write data at the same time, causing the system to crash. To get round this, programmers write specialised software that interacts directly with the hardware to create several "virtual machines", each capable of running its own operating system.

It is a tricky task. For example, when an OS queries a Pentium processor about the total memory available, the chip normally informs the OS about all the free memory, rather than the memory allocated to it by the virtualisation software. The virtualisation software sits between the hard drive and the OS and must calculate how much free memory is allocated to that OS.

Codename Vanderpool


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