Tech Industry

Digital's Alpha to remain fastest chip?

In its first major announcement since the Compaq merger news, Digital says its 64-bit Alpha processor will break the 1,000-MHz barrier by the year 2000.

Digital Equipment (DEC), making its first major announcement since last week's declaration of a planned merger with Compaq (CPQ), said that the newest version of its 64-bit Alpha processor will break the 1,000-MHz barrier by the year 2000, a goal which may put Digital's chip and Intel's upcoming Merced processor on a collision course.

Digital is one of the first chip manufacturers to explicitly state 1,000-MHz performance as a goal. Though the processor's raw "clock" speed is the most eye-catching feature, advanced processors also come with many more subtle design modifications to boost performance.

These advanced Alpha processors would offer performance many times that of today?s fastest Intel Pentium II chips, which currently top out at 333 MHz. Digital's Alpha today runs at a top speed of 600 MHz.

Importantly, Intel?s upcoming 64-bit Merced processor, due in 1999, is also expected to be able to achieve speeds of 1,000 MHz and above, and will offer a radical new chip architecture, putting it and Alpha on a collision course.

"Digital has to demonstrate a performance advantage to be gained by going with their architecture versus the safe (Intel) choice," says Nathan Brookwood, processor analyst with Dataquest. "As long as they can demonstrate those advantages are there...they might even be able to find a few more customers," Brookwood adds.

Digital's Alpha has faced an uncertain future since last October, when Digital sold its chipmaking plants to Intel (INTC) as part of the settlement of its patent infringement lawsuit against the processor giant.

Under the terms of the deal, which has yet to receive final approval from the Federal Trade Commission, Intel said it would continue making the Alpha chips for an undisclosed amount of time. In turn, Digital agreed to support the Merced processor. The forthcoming is slated to debut in 1999 and could push beyond the 1000-MHz barrier by 2001.

The fate of the Alpha came under renewed scrutiny last week with the announcement of Compaq's planned acquisition of Digital. Executives at both companies stressed that the $9.6 billion deal meant that the Alpha's future was assured, but Alpha?s fate could be threatened if Intel makes--and Compaq incorporates--two different chip lines with no compelling performance difference between the two. The upshot: If Intel?s Merced chip delivers what the chip giant is promising, Alpha could lose much of its edge.

Compaq has become the world's largest PC maker by basing, for the most part, its systems on technology and processors from Intel. Any Alpha-based systems would compete with those, and many observers questioned how long support for the Alpha would last.

Nevertheless, beyond promising to be the first in the computer industry to break the 1,000-MHz speed barrier--also referred to as the 1-GHz (gigahertz) mark--Digital appears to be reassuring customers of its Alpha-based workstations and servers that the planned merger with Compaq has not shortened the life span of the high-performance chip.

"Digital has to demonstrate a performance advantage to be gained by going with their architecture vs. the safe choice," says Nathan Brookwood, processor analyst with Dataquest. "As long as they can demonstrate those advantages are there, certainly those who have already jumped on to the Alpha platform will feel reassured that they can stay there and they might even be able to find a few more customers," he believes.

Announcing that it would continue to speed up the Alpha is not all Digital has done to shore up support. Microsoft (MSFT) and Digital last week expanded their pact to support the use of Windows NT on the Alpha architecture. One result of the expanded partnership will be NT's ability to run on large high-end corporate enterprise-class server systems in the near future, as Microsoft will develop a 64-bit version of the operating system.

The newest Alpha chip, called the 21264, will target one of the key markets that Alpha has had some success in: special effects rendering for motion pictures. The 21264 family will include new Motion Video Instructions (MVI) that will enhance multimedia performance, Digital claims.

MVI will allow software to take advantage of functions that normally require additional hardware. For instance, Digital says that users will be able to compress large amounts of DVD video and surround-sound audio information in real time, a process which normally requires the use of specialized media processors costing $4,000 to $20,000.

The 1,000-MHz chip will be initially be made on the .35-micron production process. Later, the company will start production using an advanced .25-micron production process, a state-of-the-art technology now being adopted by many chip makers.

The 64-bit chip has a whopping 15.2 million transistors.

Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.