In yet another twist to the long-running saga of the Alpha processor, Compaq has contracted IBM to manufacture a copper version of the chip to be used in its high-end boxes.
When Compaq acquired Digital in 1998, it found itself the owner of a mishmash of different technologies at various stages of development, in addition to the global services infrastructure that was its real motive for the purchase. It has subsequently divested itself of much of what was dead wood.
Alpha processor technology has remained a key component of Compaq's strategy, perhaps because the company cannot decide what to do with it. On the one hand Alpha is a great piece of design and engineering with a modest, but significant, user base that cannot easily be abandoned. On the other hand, Compaq faces stiff competition from Intel, AMD, Sun Microsystems and others, and needs to expend much energy and resources simply to stand still, never mind prosper.
Compaq's deal with Samsung, for example, in which the manufacture of Alpha chips was outsourced to the Korean firm, virtually ceded ownership of the platform. Now there are to be two makers of Alpha, with IBM bringing its performance-enhancing copper chip technology to the party.
There are already rumours of plans to incorporate IBM's even more advanced silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology into Alpha. If the early talk is to be believed, servers based on IBM's Alpha chips will really fly, as well as possibly compete on price, presenting corporate buyers with a tempting alternative when shipments first roll early next year.
Clive Longbottom, director of Strategy Partners, said: "IBM is ahead of the game with its copper technology, and it has plenty of fabrication capacity. It's still turning out PowerPC chips, but not in massive numbers. This is a sensible and pragmatic move from its point of view, even if it appears as though it is competing with itself. It's a win for Compaq too."
A real contender?
Most analysts have agreed that the key problem Alpha faces is one of volume. It has never achieved the popularity that would cement it as a genuine long-haul contender in its market. Attempts to expand Alpha's appeal, such as the Samsung deal, have not been successful. The IBM move is one more throw of the dice to try to widen popularity.
But does the IBM deal really represent a new dawn for the Alpha and a much-needed boost for all the users who have already bought into the Alpha platform, as well as Compaq's Tru64 Unix flavour?
Longbottom believes the technology faces an uphill battle. "Clearly there must be concerns about the future of Alpha and Tru64 with 64bit Intel just around the corner. It's going to be difficult for Alpha to make economic sense, since it has such a small share of the market," he said.
"Anyone underpinning Windows NT with Alpha is already in trouble, with Microsoft no longer developing for Alpha. It's all down to how far Tru64 can go now. If anyone has any doubts, there's always other flavours of Unix, Windows 2000 or, if they fancy a shot in the dark, Linux," he added.
Other analysts paint a bleaker picture. Peter Crowcombe, of consultant Infonetics, said: "I think that Alpha has died the death already, except for a few high-end niches. Water flows under the bridge so quickly in processor development that you need to pump a fortune into R&D just to stay in the game. If I was an Alpha user, I'd be taking a good long look at what R&D is going into Alpha compared with competitive platforms, and make my decision based on that."
Mid-range gains in Europe
But it's not all doom and gloom for Compaq's Unix-based enterprise ambitions. In Europe at least, it is the fastest growing Unix supplier at the moment, according to several sources. And although much of this growth has been in the mid-range, the recently launched AlphaServer GS range may help it make gains at the high-end as well.
To improve its prospects, Compaq is focusing the GS range at hot areas such as business-to-business infrastructure, and on high octane markets such as telecoms and ebusiness.
The success of the next generation of Alpha machines, which will be the first fruits of its collaboration with IBM, will be a crossroads for Alpha, and for Compaq. If all goes well, Alpha can follow in the slipstream of other platforms for a while longer. But if the results of the IBM deal fail to reassure existing Alpha users, or convert new ones, then the end will be nigh.
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