DEC may be DECeased but the Alpha microprocessor will live on - possibly even prosper - after a series of events have given reason for hope.
First of all its new owner, Compaq, talked up its commitment to the chip shortly followed by news that Intel's Merced would be delayed. However the best hope for a bright future will depend upon the commitment Samsung Electronics gives to the Alpha.
Earlier this year the company opted to form an independent corporation, Alpha Processor Inc. (API), that for the first time will market, sell and promote the Alpha architecture. Manufacturing will be done by the parent, Samsung Electronics while the API subsidiary will sell processors and try to recruit computer vendors.
Meanwhile AMD has signed a memo of understanding with Compaq to license the bus design for Alpha to be used in AMD's K7 processor. Silicon Valley insiders say that the letter of intent is about to solidify into a full commitment.
During the five years since Alpha-based systems began shipping in volume, Digital's 64-bit architecture has consistently maintained bragging rights as the fastest processor on the planet.
Nearly 500,000 Alpha systems are in use at more than 100,000 customer sites today. The native application base now exceeds 10,000 and is growing by more than 30 applications per week, according to Terry Shannon, publisher of newsletter Shannon Knows DEC (now meaning Distributed Enterprise Computing).
But despite fulfilling its technological objectives, Alpha has for a variety of reasons, failed to deliver on the promise of widespread adoption as a high-volume, industry-standard processor.
For this reason the work at API will be crucial to the future success of the chips. Under its agreement, now with Compaq, it is able to design and manufacture its own versions of the Alpha microprocessor.
Samsung obtained the license from Digital last fall, which gave the company access to all Alpha intellectual property including patents and future implementations. The new company's prospects for success have also been boosted by the support of Compaq and Microsoft.
According to Dae Je Chin, CEO of API, the company's mission will be to drive down the cost of Alpha-based computing - something it hopes to accomplish with help from Compaq's customer base and Microsoft's Windows NT-based software.
"Initially we will strengthen the existing Alpha in the enterprise computing arena," said Young-Joon "YJ" Kim, director of product marketing at API, "and continue into additional segments of visual computing, like Hollywood and the Titanic." He believes there is no match in terms of performance for Alpha servers.
Kwang Pyuk Suh, API's vice president of manufacturing and technology, anticipates delivering a 1 GHz EV68 part early in 1998, followed in the second half by a 1.2 GHz chip that consumes about 20 percent less power.
He said the derivative Alpha designs may include additional on-chip cache or tweaks to suit the chip for low-power applications and cheaper manufacturing. Such designs would make Alpha suitable for embedded applications.
"API lacks the deep pockets and the installed base that Digital brought to the Alpha party, but the Samsung semiconductor start-up lacks some of excess baggage that stymied Alpha in the marketplace," said newsletter author Shannon.
"As a pure-play Alpha volume company, that is placing all the silicon behind one architecture, API doesn't have to contend with a dual-platform strategy, an erratic OEM program, or inconsistent corporate messages," he noted. "If API manages to adhere to its timetable, the firm will have no difficulty maintaining and extending Alpha's performance leadership."
Eckhard Pfeiffer, Compaq chief executive officer, painted a picture of future growth for his company that "will involve more sales of products and services over the Web as well as an increased push into high-end corporate computing, including support for the Digital 64-bit Alpha processor."
He said Compaq will have a significant influence on the speed of industry standards development and as part of the effort, Pfeiffer stated, "Compaq will continue to invest in the high-performance 64-bit platforms. Alpha is at least two years ahead of Merced," he said.
Compaq senior vice president and general manager, John T. Rose, reiterated Compaq's plan to evolve Alpha into an industry standard architecture. According to Rose, Compaq-branded Alpha servers and workstations will form a high-end extension to Compaq's Wintel product line. He also hinted that Alpha microprocessors might also show up in "new product" categories.
On the Microsoft side, the company has agreed to provide enhanced client support as well as native development tools including Visual Basic and Visual C+. Earlier this year, Microsoft and Digital added new initiatives to their 1995 alliance, including a new systems architecture being developed by Digital to run NT on large enterprise-class systems in the near future.
As part of the new pact, both companies plan to double the number of support professionals dedicated to Windows-NT based systems and cooperate on new technologies that build on NT's current capabilities.
Before the takeover was finalised Digital said it would offer new systems by next year that take advantage of 32 and 64 Alpha microprocessors in one box. Those plans are unchanged. These multiprocessor server computers, SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) systems will be based on a non-uniform memory (NUMA) access design used already by Sequent, Data General and Silicon Graphics.
The systems will also hope to take advantage of the Very Large Memory (VLM) capabilities in version 5.0 of NT, when it is finally released next year.
Other elements of the partnership include plans for Compaq to port what was Digital's emulation software to NT so that Alpha-based applications can be used in conjunction with Intel-based systems and for both companies to drive a single interface for future 64-bit implementations of NT.
On the competitive front it was revealed that Intel's IA64 architecture, first announced in June 1994 with a projected 1997 availability date, has suffered further delays to mid-2000. That means key applications, tools and utilities cannot be tested until production versions of Merced are available. This could push widescale deployment back further into late 2001 or 2002.
While the delay in Merced availability has been sloughed off by Intel, it is really good news for the Alpha community - it gives Alpha an additional year as the only 64-bit Windows NT platform. The 21264 Alpha chip will start at a speed of 600MHz and a thickness of 0.35 microns. However, by the year 2000, the 21264 will be faster and thinner, checking in at 1,000MHz and 0.18 microns.
The 21264 will be two to five times faster than any other available technology and will continue to outperform Intel chips right through Merced. Engineers are working on the next two generations of Alpha that will take it beyond 2004.
Another beneficiary of the latest Intel schedule delay is Sun Microsystems - because by the time Merced ships in volume, Ultra Sparc III will be on its second or third spin.
While the Alpha was almost always praised by the industry as far superior to anything Intel had to offer, Digital, failed to capitalize on its advantage. With Alpha the property of Compaq, and licensed to API, market visibility will be accelerated and Alpha will have a last chance at greatness.
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel and for the first time in a long time, it's not the headlight of an oncoming train," said Shannon.
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