Compaq Computer's Alpha chip may be heading toward the periphery of the market, but its influence will live on in versions of Intel's Itanium chip coming out in 2004 and beyond.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based Intel is readying two new versions of its Itanium chip--code-named Montecito and Chivano--that will incorporate concepts from the Alpha architecture, according to sources. Montecito will likely come out in 2004, while Chivano will probably appear in 2005 or 2006.
The Alpha influence in these chips comes as a result of a deal last June between Intel and Compaq under which Intel acquired a license for the intellectual property for Alpha and hired more than 100 engineers from the Alpha team. The deal helped pave the way for the Compaq-HP merger, according to some analysts. With the agreement, Compaq said it would begin to fade out the line gradually.
Intel declined to comment, citing a policy to not discuss unannounced products.
Alpha in some ways has been the noble experiment of the processor world. While highly regarded for its performance and underlying technology, the chip--and servers containing it--never achieved a strong position in the market. Instead, Alpha servers were consistently outsold by Unix servers containing chips from Sun Microsystems and IBM.
Digital Equipment designed the chip, but the Alpha family was transferred to Compaq in 1998 when Compaq acquired Digital.
"Alpha is one of the quintessential examples of a great technology failing to get its fair share of the market," said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64, who analogized it to Sony's Betamax. "In the long haul, it makes Itanium more attractive by injecting that technological talent."
Itanium is the line of server processors from Intel. Unlike conventional Pentium chips, which digest data in 32-bit chunks, Itanium handles data in 64-bit chunks and can manage far more memory at once. As a result, it can be used in computers to run large databases. The chip, however, was delayed for years and has sold sparingly since it was released in May 2001.
The extent of the Alpha influence on the planned chips is unclear. Montecito and Chivano could both include architectural features embodied in current Alpha processors, according to some sources. More likely, the two chips could merely reflect some of the technological themes or ideas that appear in Alpha.
Either way, sources say the two chips will bear some sort of Alpha stamp. Intel executives have already said that the newly hired Alpha engineers will help Intel in developing compilers, software that helps navigate the chasm between the machine code of a chip and abstract software code.
The chips will appear in high-end servers. Montecito is positioned to be a successor to Madison, which itself is a successor to McKinley, a new version of Itanium coming out toward the middle of the year. Madison is expected to come out in 2003 and run between 1.2GHz and 1.6GHz, according to sources.
Like Madison, Montecito will be made using the 130-nanometer manufacturing process, the process currently used for Intel's fastest notebook and desktop chips. McKinley will come out on the 180-nanometer process.
Montecito will likely contain new features that aren't in the cards for Madison. For instance, Intel has said it will incorporate hyperthreading, a technology emerging on Xeon chips in a few weeks that can enhance performance. Hyperthreading allows software programs to use different parts of the chip at once, hence speeding up the amount of time it takes to accomplish a given set of tasks. Alpha engineers planned to incorporate a variant of hyperthreading into Alpha, Brookwood noted.
"Fundamentally, once somebody comes up with a performance-enhancing feature in one architecture, it becomes relatively straightforward to move it to other architectures," Brookwood said.
While it remains unclear, Chivano could come out on the 95-nanometer process, as Intel is expected to start coming out with processors sporting 95-nanometer circuits in 2005. Chips made on the 95-nanometer process will be smaller and faster than 130-nanometer chips--just as 130-nanometer chips are smaller than their 180-nanometer kin.
If Chivano in fact comes out on the 95-nanometer process, it could contain a number of new features. Intel has said it will likely come out with a version of Itanium with two processor cores, or two fully functional chips on one piece of silicon. Researchers at the company have also said that it won't be economically practical to come out with dual-core chips, such as IBM's Power 4, until the 95-nanometer manufacturing era.
Hyperthreading may also not make its debut in the Itanium line until Chivano, one source speculated.
Ironically, Digital sued Intel in 1997, claiming the company had infringed its intellectual property with regard to Alpha. The two giants settled the case early on. As part of the settlement, Intel acquired Digital's Hudson, Mass., fabrication facility where Alpha was made at the time and the intellectual property to the StrongArm chip line.
Alpha engineers have also been behind some of Intel's toughest competitors. Dirk Meyer and Fred Weber, the two chief technologists behind Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon and upcoming Hammer chips, are Alpha alumni.