Alpha Reaches Its Omega

Final generation of 64-bit processor is now shipping.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

October 24, 2003

4 Min Read

The Alpha processor--on life support for much of its tormented lifetime--is finally on death row. Its current owner, Hewlett-Packard, says the final iteration of the 64-bit chip began shipping this week.

"When it was introduced by Digital Equipment Corp. in November 1992, it was the fastest chip on the planet," said Terry Shannon, a computer industry consultant who watched the processor grow from conception at Digital to its adolescence at Compaq to its final resting place at HP. "The new server still goes like a bat out of hell. If you have to have an end of the line, it's better to go out with a bang than with a whimper."

Although this week's shipment of the AlphaServer GS1280 marks the beginning of the end for the Alpha--it will be the final major processor improvement--HP will support the machine for years and provide additional hardware and software updates. "The new products," said Rich Marcella, a senior VP at HP, "are designed to meet the computing needs of AlphaServer customers while ensuring a smooth transition to Itanium architecture-based HP integrity servers on their own timetable."

Nobody in charge of the processor over its long history seemed to know exactly what to do with it or how to market it effectively. There are those who think it played a central role in the demise and disappearance of Digital and later Compaq. And then there was the machine's role in the murky proceedings between Digital and Microsoft. When that music ended, Microsoft ended up with Windows NT and with Digital's legendary operating-system software designer Dave Cutler while Digital began fading out of the computer industry for good.

Shannon estimates there are 400,000 Alpha systems in use; taking into consideration terminals and time-sharing applications, that translates to 10 million people "touched by" the processor. He said its user base is very active and, as a typical example, noted that there were more than 400 attendees at an Alpha users group he addressed in the Netherlands last summer.

VMS, which became the Alpha's workhorse operating system, remains an important part of the Digital and Alpha legacy and is likely to play a role in the Itanium line. Shannon noted the Alpha didn't have a full-blown operating system when it was announced and it wasn't until VMS was ported from Digital's VAX line several months later that the 64-bit processor got its first major operating system. Shannon said VMS is enjoying a second wind these days primarily because it's so secure and robust and because security-minded users are looking for such software. VMS is being ported to the Itanium.

Shannon, who sold 100,000 copies of a best-selling book on VMS, said the operating system could be "very important" for HP's Itanium particularly for users who need a "rock solid" operating system that's secure.

In a statement, HP said the GS1280 is the most powerful system in the AlphaServer line. The EV7-based line has been enhanced with a doubled memory capacity reaching as much as 8 Gbytes per central processing unit and a new memory channel interconnect adapter that lowers the cost of clustered systems. An optional input/output drawer scheme quadruples I/O rack space capacity.

HP's GS1280 contains 64 of the 64-bit Alphas. The EV7-based AlphaServer line runs OpenVMA and Tru64 Unix operations systems. HP's strategy for the Alpha is to move users to its 64-bit Itanium line. Its program for moving Alpha users is called the AlphaServer Retain Trust program.

When the Alpha was announced, Digital promised to keep the machine in the technology forefront, maintaining twice the speed of competing processors. But the machine often had problems with operating system software. No effective operating system was developed in time for the first users. Digital's attempts to develop alternative operating systems failed and VMS was ported to the Alpha from the VAX. At Digital, Cutler was writing software for 64-bit machines. He later developed software for Microsoft on a Digital Alpha. At some point, Digital and Microsoft entered into protracted negotiations and deliberations involving 64-bit machines. Finally, Microsoft agreed to provide software for the Alpha, but later the software giant withdrew its support.

"The Alpha never made it to the desktop," said Shannon. "No desktop equals no volume. And no volume equals no income."

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