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Compaq debuts new Alpha workstations

Two new systems are based on the Alpha chip designed with architecture inherited from Digital Equipment.

Compaq announced two new systems based on the Alpha chip today, as it continues to push this architecture inherited from Digital Equipment.

Compaq is livening up the workstation market today by introducing its new Alpha 21264-based machines, code-named Monet and now officially called the XP1000.

As part of its efforts to merge its own product lines with those from Digital Equipment, the Houston-based parent company also is introducing a new low-end DS20 server using the same chip and has officially renamed the Digital Unix operating system Tru64 Unix.

As previously reported, the XP1000 "extreme performance" workstation will use a 500-MHz version of the Alpha chip, said Nick Panayi, head of workstation marketing for Compaq Computer. Until today, the only other place the third-generation Alpha chip has shown up is in Compaq's high-end GS60 and GS140 servers.

"The Alpha at the moment is still the best microprocessor on the planet," said Peter ffoulkes, an analyst with Dataquest. As a result, the system is a good pick for people performing computationally intensive tasks such as structural analysis, but the system has relatively modest midrange graphics performance.

However, Compaq's two-processor "Anaconda" workstation project is extinct--or at least an endangered species. "At this point in time, we couldn't see enough of a need to go out with a dual Alpha-based workstation," Panayi said. "We'll consider it if the market is there. But there's so much power [in the single-processor systems] that I'm not sure a lot of people would be convinced they need a second Alpha processor."

ffoulkes believes that Compaq could pursue a multiprocessor plan if the uniprocessor system proves successful enough.

The new workstations are available with Windows NT or Unix or both, Panayi said. Although the Alpha is the development platform for the upcoming 64-bit version of Windows 2000 (the successor to NT), users will need to use Unix to take advantage of the 64-bit chip.

The Alpha 21264, code-named EV6, is significantly faster than Intel's Pentium II Xeon, ffoulkes said. And the XP1000 has a super-fast 2.6 gigabytes per second (GB/sec) path to main memory, more than three times the 800 megabytes per second (MB/sec) a standard Intel machine can muster.

"That offers real differentiation, unlike Intel's stuff," ffoulkes said. And with Compaq's commitment to the Alpha chip, purchasers can be assured the product will be supported for at least its lifetime.

"The good news is there is choice still. It is not just an Intel-dominated world," ffoulkes said. "Alpha was a little shaky in the latter days of Digital, but the commitment Compaq has put behind it with money, not just words, basically got credibility behind the Alpha."

Like Silicon Graphics' Visual Workstation, the XP1000 mixes the Windows NT operating system with unconventional hardware. ffoulkes said the SGI machine features better graphics performance than the XP1000, but that the Compaq box is great for number-crunching tasks such as finite element analysis or financial analysis.

The Compaq workstation is available with Compaq's PowerStorm 300 and 350 graphics card, which uses an Evans and Sutherland chip for drawing the graphics but relies on the Alpha chip to perform geometric calculations. Compaq said there's plenty of power to spare in the 21264 for such tasks.

To run at their fastest, programs must be translated for the Alpha. But because the machine uses Windows NT, that process is relatively simple, ffoulkes said, and many companies that see an advantage in offering their products for the Alpha processor have already done so.

For other Windows NT software written for Intel machines, Compaq's FX!32 technology does a respectable job translating the software over into instructions the Alpha chip can understand.

The systems is available with an Elsa Gloria graphics card now, and will come with the PowerStorm 300 card in early March, and with the PowerStorm 350 at the end of March.

A basic XP1000 costs $7,152 with Windows NT, a single processor, 128 MB of RAM, and a 4GB SCSI hard disk spinning at 10,000 rpm. The machine has 4MB of Level 2 cache, which runs at a third the speed of the chip and communicates at the 2.6GB/sec.