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Compaq backs Alpha future

The company will finally provide details on its Alpha chip platform Monday, including plans for a future 1,000-MHz version.

Compaq will finally put its plans for the Alpha platform in concrete form on Monday when the Houston, Texas-based computing giant rolls out its first Alpha-based servers and provides details on future generations of processors that will hit 1,000-MHz and more.

The AlphaServer family will strut its stuff on Monday, exemplifying how this architecture is superior in some important respects to the widely used Intel x86 design. Compaq will release servers using the Alpha chip ranging from two- to four- processor servers all the way to giant servers that can accept over 200 processors, said Compaq executives.

These systems will be powered by the 21264 Alpha processor, which is also first being released Monday.

Initial 21264 chips will run at 575 MHz but move toward 1,000-MHz by late 1999. In 2000, Compaq will then top this with the 21364, a 1,000-MHz plus chip with a variety of performance enhancements, said Peter Bannon, senior consulting engineer at Compaq.

Monday's event essentially will mark a watershed moment for Compaq and the technology platforms it acquired from Digital. With the new servers and chips, Compaq will officially jump into the lucrative high-end corporate "enterprise" computing market, the multibillion dollar industry of supplying esoteric mainframe-like solutions and services to the Fortune 500.

Second, Compaq's endorsement of the Alpha platform means that the chip will remain a key rival to Intel's upcoming 64-bit Merced processor for the foreseeable future. Compaq, an Intel architecture stalwart ever since the company was founded back in the early 1980s, now, for the first time in its history, has two chip architectures.

Compaq's commitment to the Alpha chip was unclear earlier in the year because the company also plans to strongly support Intel's Merced. But the Alpha roadmap, which provides for three new generations of chips, clearly indicates Compaq is serious about the chip business.

IA-64 vs. Alpha: The 64-bit roadmaps
Year Intel's IA-64 Compaq's Alpha
1998 in progress 21264 at 575 MHz
1999 first samples 21264 at 750 MHz to 1 GHz
mid-2000 Merced at 800 MHz + 21364 at 1 GHz +
late 2001 McKinley at 1 GHz + EV8
2002 Madison  
2003(?) Deerfield  
Source: Various

Further, the Alpha roadmap provides for chip performance that will likely outpace Merced. This won't guarantee success for Alpha, say observers, because of the massive amounts of capital it takes to compete in this market, but it certainly makes its immediate future look better.

"Alpha looked bad a few months ago, but now it is looking a little better," said Linley Gwennap, editorial director at MicroDesign Resources. "Alpha clearly has to maintain a performance lead, or Compaq will pull the plug."

"This is kind of like the playoffs," added Nathan Brookwood, principal consultant with Insight 64. "Intel has a lot of work to do so that it can pass Alpha." However, he added, "If Intel decidedly pushes past Alpha, people will have to wonder why they are sticking with the platform."

The three new classes of servers coming Monday will represent an entirely new product category for Compaq, said Jim Parsons, Alpha marketing manager. The AlphaServer GS, or global server, will be huge, multiprocessing engines that can accommodate from 32 to more than 200 processors. The AlphaServer ES, meanwhile, will be targeted at enterprise-level placements while the AlphaServer DS will target departmental uses.

All of these servers will use the Unix and minicomputer operating systems acquired from Digital. These are the first Alpha-based products released under the Compaq name.

Workstations, and then servers, that combine Alpha chips and Microsoft's Windows NT will appear in the first part of 1999, Parsons added. Some of the workstation systems are expected to come in at the $5,000 price point or lower.

On the processor side, Compaq will release the first 21264 chips, said Bannon. The processor will run in the 500-MHz range, he said, although sources pinned the speed at 575 MHz. The chip will come out on the relatively old 0.35-micron manufacturing process, he added, but quickly migrate to more advanced manufacturing processes, which will boost speeds.

A 21264 running at close to 750 MHz made with the 0.28-micron manufacturing process will come out "pretty soon" he said. Toward the end of 1999, Digital will move to the 0.18-micron manufacturing process, which will result in chips that run at 1,000 MHz.

Ironically, Alpha is making speed advances faster than planned because of Intel, said Brookwood. Intel acquired Digital's chip fabrication facilities in Hudson, Massachusetts, in a legal settlement earlier this year. Because it invests more in production process technology than Digital ever did, Intel will upgrade the Hudson facility far faster than Digital had planned to do on their own. A press release from Digital in February, in fact, says that the Alpha would migrate to the 0.18-micron process "over the next few years" when now the shift will occur in under 15 months.

"Between the Compaq acquisition and Intel taking over the fab, two major clouds over Alpha have lifted," he said.

The 21364 generation, also known as EV7, will then come out in mid-2000. This processor will integrate a number of other functions currently handled on separate chips.

The 21364, for instance, will contain an integrated secondary cache, an integrated memory controller, and an input-output unit. Many low-end chips integrate these functions. The difference comes in the quantities involved. The 21364 will come with 1.5MB of integrated memory, or more than 10 times the amount seen on lower-end desktop chips.

"Our goal is to maintain a 2X performance differential over Merced" or its successors, said Parsons.

Besides running at faster speeds than the 21264, the 21364 will be capable of greater degrees of multiprocessing. It will be possible to combine up to 256 of the processors together in a single computer, said Bannon, although standard boxes will contain between eight and 64 processors.

Part of the enhanced multiprocessing ability comes from the integrated memory controller, according to Bannon. With the memory controller integrated, server memory will no longer sit in a bank connected to the processor through a series of busses and controllers.

Instead, each processor will be connected to its own store of memory. Multiprocessing, as well as overall performance, improves as a result of this shift. The memory controller, however, will only support the Rambus memory architecture.

The 21264 generation will not disappear, said Parsons. The chips may be shifted to compete in the lower-cost workstation segments while the 21364 remains the solution for servers.

Compaq will also release a new version of the 21164 running at 600 MHz on Monday that cannot be used in multiprocessor environments. The chip is a vestige of Digital's plans to attempt to get into the desktop market, said Bannon. That strategy has largely been abandoned and Compaq does not have current plans to use the chip in its own machines.

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