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Alpha pushes processor to a cool 1 GHz

Although widespread acceptance continues to elude the Alpha processor, companies backing the platform break two major speed landmarks today.

NEW YORK--Although widespread acceptance continues to elude the Alpha processor, companies backing the platform broke through two major speed landmarks today and rolled out an architectural change that should reduce the cost for adopting Alpha.

Alpha Processor Incorporated (API) CNET's PC Expo coverage and Samsung, two of the chief proponents of Alpha, demonstrated a computer system running an Alpha processor clocked at 1 GHz (1,000 megahertz) at PC Expo here today that did not require special cryogenic equipment to keep it from overheating. Intel and AMD have both demonstrated 1-GHz chips before but on supercooled computers.

In addition, API announced a 750-MHz version of the Alpha 21264, which, when it comes out in July, will become the fastest commercially available processor on the market. API plans to release the 1-GHz chip by mid-2000, according to sources, which would give it another record. In the end, that means more powerful back-end servers for Web sites and corporations. Intel's fastest chip currently runs at 550-MHz while a 600-MHz version is due in August.

And topping off the announcements, API rolled out its "Slot B" chip packaging. Similar in concept to Intel's Slots 1 and 2, the Slot B architecture essentially takes different motherboard components--notably the chip, the heat sink, cache memory, and the voltage regulator--and puts them into a fungible package. The reason? Inserting the components into a re-useable package removes design issues for server makers, thereby lowering the cost and price of Alpha-based systems.

"With API's low-cost solutions, we are invigorating the market for Alpha and making it viable for broader markets," said Jeff Borkowski, vice president of API. (API markets and licenses Alpha processors while Compaq Computer is the lead designer and main consumer of the chip. Samsung manufactures most of the Alpha chips while Intel makes some as a result of a legal settlement.)

Still, it's the commercial realm where Alpha seems to be lacking. While universally lauded for its number-crunching prowess, the Alpha chip has suffered from a lack of mainstream acceptance. It's the only other chip besides Intel CPUs that runs current and future versions of Windows NT, but the vast majority of Windows NT servers use Intel chips. High prices, especially when compared to Intel chips, has kept it back, wrote Linley Gwennap, publisher of The Microprocessor Report this week.

The chip is successful in some high-performance tasks, such as running Amazon.com's front- and back-end systems and powering Network Appliance's high-speed file servers.

Compaq, which inherited the Alpha design team when it acquired Digital in 1998, is one of the major users of the chip. The 21264 now is available in everything from Compaq's one-processor DS10 "WebBrick" computer to its 14-processor GS140 server. Compaq also uses the chip in its fastest workstations.

Compaq uses the chip for its OpenVMS and Tru64 Unix operating systems and has said its ultra-high-end NonStop Himalaya servers will be based on Alpha in the future.

The Slot B architecture, which will also be used by AMD's upcoming K7 chip, will likely do its trick in making the platform more palatable in terms of cost.

"API is dedicated to growing both the Compaq and non-Compaq markets, and the standardized design of the new motherboards and Slot B processors should make Alpha more attractive," wrote Gwennap. "It is less clear who, if anyone, would want a system that supports both K7 and Alpha, but at least the communality enables the companies to share chipset development costs."

Michael Kanellos reported from San Francisco and Stephen Shankland from New York.