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Intel gets more key Alpha alums

A chief architect behind the touted Alpha processor and a number of other Alpha engineers are joining Intel this month to work on future versions of Itanium.

Pete Bannon, one of the key architects behind the touted Alpha processor, and a number of other Alpha engineers are joining Intel to work on future versions of Itanium.

Bannon and approximately 50 Alpha engineers will move from Hewlett-Packard to Intel this month, the company announced this week. The transition is the latest stage in a technological wagon train that began in 2001 as the result of a massive development agreement between the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker and Compaq Computer, which at the time controlled Alpha.

Around 300 former Alpha engineers already work at Intel. By the time the agreement is concluded, more than 450 are expected to move to Intel, company spokeswoman Barbara Grimes said. Most of the Alpha alumni are working on a version of the Itanium that will follow Montecito, a version of Itanium with two separate processors in a single piece of silicon coming in 2005.

Although the Alpha chip has never sold as well as other server chips, such as the UltraSparc family from Sun Microsystems, analysts and engineers have praised its performance. Digital Equipment first released the chip in the early 1990s. Compaq acquired Alpha in 1998 when it bought Digital, and HP became the owner when it bought Compaq.

The chip, and the Alpha development team, directly and indirectly influenced other major processors. The original Athlon chip from Advanced Micro Devices used a bus initially created for the Alpha. The new Opteron chip features a high-speed chip-to-chip interconnect called HyperTransport and an integrated memory controller--technologies similar to those touted earlier in Alpha. Dirk Meyer, AMD's top processor executive, worked on the Alpha.

Similarly, Hyperthreading, a technology in the Pentium 4 that lets a chip do multiple tasks simultaneously, was inspired in part by research performed at Digital first.

Brannon on Tuesday joined Intel as an "Intel fellow," the job title given to the company's deep thinkers. Like their counterparts at IBM, fellows at Intel sketch out strategic technological plans. While an employee at Compaq, Bannon was known for making disparaging comments about Itanium at the Microprocessor Forum, one of the big, annual events for semiconductor makers.

Bannon "will be leading a system interface architecture team for a future Itanium product," Grimes said. That processor will be released after Montecito.

Kevin Krewell, a senior editor at The Microprocessor Report, said it won't be surprising if Brannon and his team work on technologies similar to Hypertransport or integrating a memory controller. In June, Mike Fister, general manager of the Intel enterprise platform group, said the company is considering integrating a memory controller into its server chips and improving the chip interconnects.

The move for the Alpha team likely won't be difficult. Intel owns the building in Hudson, Mass., where they work. "It is a migration from one end of the building to another," Krewell said.