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Compaq expands Linux line

The PC maker plans to introduce new servers based on Alpha chips that have been maximized for Linux next week, but some question the business potential of that plan.

Compaq plans to introduce new servers based on Alpha chips that have been maximized for Linux next week, but the dominant Linux distributor has said that Linux on Alpha has only limited business potential.

Compaq plans to debut two new Alpha-based servers next week, the low-end single-processor "WebBrick" DS10 with a 466-MHz chip and the four-processor ES40 with a 500-MHz chip, a source familiar with the products said.

On April 5, those servers will join the DS20 as Alpha 21264-based systems certified to work with Linux, the rambunctious operating system that is gaining ground within the corporate space.

Meanwhile, though, Bob Young, chief executive of Linux distributor Red Hat, had some rain for the parade of new Alpha servers.

"Unfortunately, there aren't enough Alpha processors in use for us to build a very big business around it," Young said. "It's simply not a big business for us."

However, Young added that Alpha is well-suited for some Linux tasks, and that "we hope to see a dramatic improvement in the exposure of Red Hat Linux on Alpha."

Young's remarks are interesting in light of the current strained relations between the companies. Compaq has launched a plan to use the popularity of Linux to give a boost to Alpha sales, which have historically lagged below expectations. To accomplish that, however, Compaq has begun offering help to a variety of Linux distributors, not just Red Hat, with their Linux-Alpha editions.

Compaq acknowledged that relations between Red Hat and Compaq haven't always been rosy. Interestingly, Compaq, along with several other big-name computing companies like IBM, Intel, Novell, Oracle, and SAP, owns an equity investment in Red Hat.

Linux is a Unix-like operating system developed by Linus Torvalds and hundreds of other programmers that in recent months has received mainstream recognition. At the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, the "coming out party" for Linux, Compaq gave Torvalds a DS20 server. Also at the conference, Compaq announced Linux certification for some of its Intel-based computers. The servers coming next week help round out the Linux assault for Compaq.

"Compaq recognizes that Linux represents a huge opportunity for them to move a lot more Alpha machines," Young said, who nonetheless qualified the prediction. The advantage of open source software such as Linux is that it can be recompiled for new chips, overcoming some of the obstacles that often hamper the adoption of new hardware.

Using Linux to drive hardware sales is not a strategy unique to Compaq. Hewlett-Packard is working with the Puffin Group to port Linux to its PA-RISC chips, Sun Microsystems is working with UltraPenguin to port Linux to its UltraSparc chips, and IBM is working with LinuxPPC to port Linux to its Power chips.

Young said Red Hat continually monitors whether it should offer Linux distributions for other chips, but at present doesn't have plans for other versions besides Intel and Alpha, and Sparc. Red Hat did help Corel offer Linux on its NetWinder computers, which use Intel's StrongARM 110 chip.

The Alpha chip, though technically ahead of its time, has had a "troubled" history, and it will be a challenge for Compaq to use Linux to turn that around, said Gartner Group analyst Tom Henkel.

For Compaq, the biggest hurdle will be convincing independent software vendors (ISVs) to translate their products to Linux-Alpha, he said. That's the same problem Compaq, and its predecessor Digital, had with getting developers to write for the version of Windows NT optimized for the Alpha chip, Henkel said.

"The majority of Linux deployments are on Intel-based hardware. For a software provider trying to address the Linux market, Intel is certainly the obvious choice," Henkel said.

Compaq, for its part, said it's aiming the Linux-Alpha combination at three new markets: high-performance technical computing organizations, Internet service providers, and educational institutions.

The technical market may have some appeal and some Internet service providers may benefit from the high performance of the Alpha, Henkel said, but Compaq is only one of many targeting ISPs, he said.

Lost potential
Overall, the Alpha story is one of lost potential, Henkel said. "Alpha was a breakthrough technology in the early 1990s, but Digital was never...quite able to achieve the kind of volume needed to promote Alpha as a broad market appeal product," he said.

The latest Alpha chip, the 21264, first emerged in 1998 in Compaq's top-end machines, then this year in the mid-range DS20s and the high-end XP10000 workstation.

Compaq's strategy to encourage more Alpha distributions appears to be bearing fruit. Debian, another Linux distributor, recently released an Alpha version of Linux, and Pacific HiTech is working on one.