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Compaq server debut shows Digital influence

Alpha-based systems also demonstrate Compaq's plans for Linux on its Alpha chip platform.

Compaq will introduce a new midrange Alpha server today, along with a revamped operating system strategy centered on a new, heavier-duty version of Unix.

The new ES40 server will begin shipping in May with as many as four 500-MHz Alpha 21264 processors. It's aimed at handling database, enterprise resource planning, and high-performance technical computing, said Tim Yeaton, general manager of Compaq's Unix software division. The ES40 works with a multitude of operating systems, including Tru64 Unix, OpenVMS, Microsoft Windows NT, and Linux.

Compaq also will announce version 5 of Tru64 Unix (formerly Digital Unix), which is growing closer to its higher-end sibling, OpenVMS. Improvements to the operating system include features that make it work better in "clustered" systems (in which one computer can take over if another fails). Tru64 also adds "partitioning" technology that lets administrators assign exactly how much disk space, CPU power, and RAM different programs get.

The announcements mark the latest stage in the assimilation of high-end Digital Equipment products into the more mainstream world of Compaq.

Compaq inherited both the hardware and software when it acquired Digital in 1998, and today's announcements indicate some fulfillment the promise of the union, said Jim Garden of Technology Business Research. "It seems they're starting to join the marketing machinery of Compaq together with the technical excellence of the Digital systems," he said.

Given the ES40's price--a single-processor ES40 begins at $23,900--the new server likely will cause consternation at competitors such as Hewlett-Packard, Sun, IBM, and Silicon Graphics, Garden said.

The DS10 "WebBrick," an entry-level Alpha server, is another system scheduled to emerge from Compaq in coming months, Yeaton said.

That server likely will arrive in May, said Compaq-watcher Terry Shannon, author of the "Shannon Knows Compaq" newsletter. The DS10 system, with a 466-MHz 21264 processor, is expected to start in with prices less than $3,500, he said, and will carry a lot of appeal as a fast Linux box, he said.

Gardner said the clustering technology coming with the new Tru64 Unix in some ways puts it ahead of Sun, IBM, and Microsoft, which rely on duplicate storage systems to handle "failover" situations. In other words, each server has to have its own copy of the storage system. In the case of Unix, it's just difficult to get an operating system to share the top-most level of the file system with another version of the operating system--a feat Tru64 Unix has accomplished.

Garden also praised the partitioning system as a way that companies could test out new software without having to buy an entirely separate system. The partitioning work is managed from a single Java station, Yeaton said.

The Linux connection
The ES40 will be Linux-certified, joining the lower-end dual-Alpha DS20 and Intel-based Proliant models in Compaq's Linux-ready stable.

Compaq said it's working to raise Linux to a higher level and increase its appeal to software companies. Later this year, the company will release in-house compiler technology that will mean software for Linux-Alpha will run twice as fast on average, Yeaton said. A compiler is the special software that translates programs written high-level languages such as C++ to the machine code a chip can understand.

"We want to get significantly larger share of the Linux market as we go forward. We see a unique opportunity on Alpha by fully exploiting its performance," Yeaton said.

However, Unix is the most likely operating system choice for the new system, Garden said.

Database vendors have warmed to Linux, but the Unix clone simply doesn't have the software support yet from large business software companies such as ERP software vendors, Garden said.

Compaq is working with Red Hat, the dominant Linux distributor, to further develop the compilers, said Red Hat CEO Bob Young. In addition, Compaq is working with Red Hat to improve Linux on Alpha by improving the compatibility between Linux and Tru64 Unix, optimizing operating system software components such as runtime libraries, and exploring Linux issues such as the ease of installing Linux and managing Linux systems, Yeaton said.

Compaq's Alpha compilers will be very inexpensive, Yeaton said, costing "between zero and very little." The libraries won't be released as open source, he said, meaning that general programmers won't be able to peer into the software's innards and adopt the code they like.

Red Hat will continue to use the Linux-standard open-source gcc and g++ compilers, Young said, because doing so will ensure that programmers will have an easier time getting their software to work on either Intel chips, Sun's Sparc chips, or Compaq's Alpha chips--the three systems Red Hat supports.

However, the new Compaq compilers likely will appeal to independent software vendors considering Linux, he said, and anyone who wants will be able to recompile the core parts of the Linux operating system with the Compaq compilers for maximum performance.

Young added that having proprietary compilers doesn't interfere with the one of the chief appeals of open source software such as Linux: that companies no longer are beholden to a single software company to fix software problems.

Though Compaq announced an equity investment in Red Hat in March, Compaq also is working with SuSE and Pacific HiTech on Alpha versions of Linux and with Caldera Systems on the Intel version, Yeaton said.

Compaq already has released math software libraries for Linux, letting Linux number-crunchers take better advantage of the Alpha's floating-point capabilities.

Compaq is targeting three markets with its Linux-Alpha strategy: high-performance technical computing, education, and Internet service providers.

For small and medium businesses, Compaq says it's emphasizing Santa Cruz Operation Unix products, which are good for "turnkey" solutions set up by system vendors to do a specific job. Compaq voiced support for Monterey, a project by SCO, IBM, and Sequent to merge IBM's AIX Unix with SCO's UnixWare in a version for Intel's next-generation 64-bit chips.