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End of the line for HP's Alpha

The last processor of the chip family is due Monday, signaling the end of a dynasty that never was.

Hewlett-Packard will release its final Alpha processor on Monday, the beginning of the end for a chip dynasty that never was.

The Alpha EV7z, which runs at 1.3GHz, is the last Alpha chip on HP's road map, an HP spokesman confirmed. The chip will be incorporated into the existing HP GS 1280 server, which can hold up to 64 processors and costs several thousand dollars.

Although HP does not have plans to come out with further versions of the chip, it will continue to sell Alpha servers through 2006 and fully support these systems through 2011. HP has been encouraging customers to migrate toward other server platforms since the close of the Compaq merger.

Created by Digital Equipment and released in 1992, the Alpha often drew accolades from analysts and benchmark testers for its performance. The first Alpha ran at a record-breaking 200MHz. The 64-bit chip was engineered to run multiple operating systems--Unix in addition to Microsoft's Windows NT--and was expected to have a life span of 25 years.

Alpha was also the first chip to reach a clock speed of 1GHz under ordinary conditions, back in 1999.

Unfortunately for Digital, the chip--and servers based on it--won only a dedicated core of customers. It was expensive, and finding software applications to run on the Alpha was a constant struggle for its users. Because of low sales of Alpha systems, Microsoft stopped shipping a version of Windows NT for the chip architecture in 1999.

"A lot of the research stuff--the sales guys couldn't sell (it) because it was ahead of its time," said Richard Belgard, a patent consultant and former engineer at competitor Data General last year. "Alpha was great technology, but who the hell needs another microprocessor?"

Compaq acquired Alpha in 1998 when it bought Digital, and HP became the owner when it bought Compaq. A licensing deal that allowed Samsung to develop Alpha chips sputtered.

Despite lackluster sales, the chip--and the engineers who worked on it--directly and indirectly influenced the industry. The original Athlon chip from Advanced Micro Devices used a bus initially created for the Alpha. The subsequent Opteron chip features a high-speed chip-to-chip interconnect called HyperTransport and an integrated memory controller--technologies similar to those touted earlier by Alpha development teams. Dirk Meyer, AMD's top processor executive, worked on the chip as well.

Last year, many of the Alpha architects left HP to join Intel. Research performed by Digital's Alpha team in the '90s on multithreading also strongly influenced HyperThreading, a technology incorporated into current Intel server and desktop chips.