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Compaq sees Linux as selling Alpha chips

The company is trying to encourage other Linux distributors besides Red Hat to support the chip.

Compaq Computer sees Linux as a way to increase sales of its Alpha microprocessor, and the company is trying to encourage other Linux distributors besides Red Hat to support the chip.

Red Hat is the dominant distributor of Linux for Alpha-based machines. However, Compaq has begun working to put its eggs in more than one basket, the company said.

That strategy appears to be bearing fruit, as Debian has released an Alpha version and Pacific HiTech has announced it's working on one.

"The strategy is to work with all the [Linux] distributors," said Joel Berman, Linux "evangelist" at Compaq.

In addition, Compaq will soon introduce new pricing geared to encourage Linux users to "step up" from Intel to Alpha chips, Berman said, targeting Alpha-Linux primarily at technical computer users who can fully appreciate the number-crunching abilities of the Alpha. Next on the list will be Internet service providers or companies wanting to set up internal Web sites. Third will be educational markets, according to Berman.

Compaq inherited a history of Linux cooperation in 1998 when it acquired Digital. Though Compaq has Linux programmers on staff and has been testing out the operating system for years, it wasn't until this year that the Houston-based company began offering Linux-qualified computers--about the same time that IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell moved to embrace Linux.

Relations between Compaq and Red Hat have been "up and down in the past," Berman said. Now, however, he believes relations are cheerier, partly because of Compaq's decision to sell Linux-certified servers without an operating system installed.

Systems without operating systems installed are popular with Linux users disinclined to pay for a different operating system they don't plan on using.

Linux is a Unix-like operating system developed by Linus Torvalds and hundreds of other programmers. Its original programming instructions are open to anyone, easing the task of translating Linux so it works on other hardware. Linux was originally developed on Intel-based computers, where it remains dominant, but Alpha was one of the early the non-Intel systems that Linux ran on.

Red Hat has been selling its Alpha version for Linux since 1995, complete with Red Hat Package Manger ("RPM") files that make it easier for Linux users to update their software with a minimum of technical knowledge.

"Obviously we would love to increase" Red Hat's sales of Alpha-Linux, Berman said. "We're hoping that our new relationship will bring that further."

Red Hat was not available for comment.

Software compiled for Alpha chips doesn't run on Intel chips, and vice versa, though with the open source nature of much Linux software, programmers can recompile nonproprietary software for many different chips. For proprietary software, Compaq distributes emulation software called "em86 that allows Intel software to run on Alpha chips.

But for proprietary software, such as Oracle databases, running on Alpha machines isn't a given. That's one reason Compaq is trying to make sure software for its Alpha-based Tru64 Unix operating system can run Linux software and vice-versa.

"I'll admit it's easier to run Linux on Intel," Berman said. But it's easier to run Linux on Alpha than on any other RISC chip, he said, mentioning Sun's Sparc chips, Silicon Graphics' MIPS chips, Motorola's PowerPC chips.

Compaq will encourage software vendors to translate their proprietary programs to Alpha-Linux, Berman said.

"Linux is a key part of Compaq's strategy," Berman said. "We all understand Linux is good. Exactly how you capitalize on that isn't clear." But Compaq does have some specific plans to get access to new markets for its Alpha chip through Linux sales.

First on the list is the high-performance technical computing market. Here, Alpha computers are tied together to form a low-budget supercomputer such as Los Alamos National Laboratory's 140-processor Avalon computer. This "Beowulf" technique was pioneered at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and Red Hat distributes Beowulf software in its Extreme Linux version.

Next on the agenda is the Internet service provider market--a market many companies besides Compaq hope to tap. Alpha machines, though, offer higher performance, he said.

Finally, there's the education market. Linux is ideally suited for teaching environments because of its cheap licensing and open source code, he said.