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Compaq puts faith in Alpha chip

The first Compaq-branded computers using Digital's speedy Alpha processor and its Unix technology will come out later this year.

Compaq executives yesterday said that the company's first Compaq-branded computers using Digital Equipment's speedy Alpha processor and its Unix technology will come out later this year, though some doubts linger about the viability of the architecture.

Compaq will release both servers and workstations built around the Alpha processor and the Windows NT operating system under its own name by the end of the year, according to the company. How Compaq will market Alpha systems with Digital's Unix operating system has not yet been determined.

This is a watershed of sorts since it will be the first instance of Compaq selling high-end computer systems using a chip that is not based on the Intel "X86" architecture. Digital's Alpha processors have historically been the performance leaders in the computer industry and currently boast speeds of more than 600 MHz, compared to Intel's top-of-the-line 400-MHz chips. But Intel has been chipping away at this lead over the last year or so by quickly increasing the speed of its newest Pentium II chip. Intel chips are expected this year that run as fast as 500 MHz.

For workstations--powerful computers for engineering, multimedia, and scientific applications--Compaq will release the XP series in the fourth quarter, said Anne Moore, director of product planning and launch at Compaq. These machines will be built around currently available Alpha processors and Windows NT. Whether the line will include the Digital Unix workstations is unclear, she added.

In any event, Moore stated that Compaq will support Digital Unix customers but try to wean them off Unix to NT.

"Compaq is committed to Unix and will support Digital's customers," she said, "but we expect to transition to NT."

In the server arena, Compaq will market machines based around Alpha and NT as part of its ProLiant server line, said Mary McDowell, vice president of the server products group at Compaq. Servers using Digital's Unix operating systems, however, will likely continue to come out under the Digital name.

Despite Compaq's show of support for Alpha, a struggle between the company's commitment to Alpha and to Intel-based processors already appears to be forming. The XP workstations, which stands for "extreme performance," will form the top segment of the Compaq workstation offerings, said Moore. The middle segment will consist of SP workstations based around the Xeon processor while the AP workstations will make up the value segment with machines based around standard Pentium II chips.

Compaq has also thrown its weight behind Alpha Processor, a Samsung subsidiary dedicated toward designing the next generation of Alpha chips. Still, a number of Compaq executives have acknowledged that Alpha has not sold well in the past, citing Digital's management and lackluster support from independent service providers, among other reasons.

As a result, sources close to Compaq as well as a number of observers have said that a final determination on the long-term roadmap for Alpha has yet to be made.

Moore admitted that Alpha chip development slipped slightly in past years.

"Even Digital will acknowledge that the current processors are no longer state-of-the art and that they are struggling to bring out their next products," she said. "I don't know if anyone knows at the moment if Alpha makes economic sense."

While issues remain for Alpha and Unix products, the fate of Digital's Intel-NT servers and workstations seems fairly set. Both lines will be merged into Compaq's product lines, both McDowell and Moore said. In practical terms, this means that Digital's products will cease to exist after their ordinary life-cycle runs.