Alpha chip update -- it ain't dead yet

Summary:In fact, the 64-bit chip that fuels high-end servers, workstations and e-commerce is undergoing a renaissance -- with 1GHz just around the bend.

Could Compaq's Alpha processor be headed for a renaissance?

The 64-bit chip for high-end servers and workstations has been dealt its share of blows over the last year, especially with Compaq and then Microsoft Corp. (msft) discontinuing support for Alpha on the Windows NT operating system.

But recent developments show that the chip is alive and well -- and moving toward 1GHz (1,000MHz).

While Alpha might not be a household name -- such as Intel Corp.'s (intc) Pentium or Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s (amd) Athlon processors -- its use in servers supporting Web sites and e-commerce means that consumers run into the chip daily.

Alpha has been deployed in as many as 700,000 systems, according to analysts. It's just hidden from consumers' view.

But now a string of recent announcements by Compaq Computer Corp. (cpq), IBM Corp. (ibm) and Alpha Processor Inc. (API), an Alpha marketing and engineering company, have thrust Alpha back into the limelight.

Actually, the chip never really went anywhere, said Terry Shannon, publisher of Shannon Knows Compaq, a newsletter that tracks Compaq, who intoned that Alpha's demise has been greatly exaggerated.

As a 64-bit chip, Alpha can process greater amounts of data per clock cycle than desktop chips from AMD and Intel, which are of 32-bit designs.| "There's a lot of misconceptions out there about Alpha," he said. For example, "people still think that Intel makes Alpha." (Intel, as part of the resolution of a patent suit filed against it by Digital Equipment Corp., manufactured the chip for a short time for Compaq, but no longer does so. Compaq now owns Digital.)

There are, in fact, five versions of the current Alpha chip, known as the 21264, shipping, ranging in clock speed from 500MHz to 750MHz. Versions of the chip running at about 800MHz and 1GHz are expected to begin shipping before the end of the year.

The single largest criticism Shannon could find for the chip?

"Obviously, they (Compaq and manufacturer Samsung Electronics) haven't cranked the clock speed as fast as Intel," he said. "But what matters at the end of the day, megahertz or getting your work done?"

As a 64-bit chip, Alpha can process greater amounts of data per clock cycle than desktop chips from AMD and Intel, which are of 32-bit designs. This makes Alpha a faster performer, even if it has not quite reached that 1GHz barrier yet.

Compaq, which owns Alpha and stewards its development, announced earlier this month that the chip will be at the heart of a new high-end Unix server, known as Wildfire, or the AlphaServer GS series.

The high-end servers, Compaq expects, will be used for e-business because they can serve up as many as 150,000 transactions per second.

Compaq claims to have numerous orders for the new server. Shannon says that other less-expensive servers using Alpha are "flying off the shelves" because they're in high demand for use in electronic business settings.

Alpha also has new backing from IBM. Big Blue's Microelectronics Division will officially announce this week that it will begin manufacturing the next generation of Alpha chips in volume early next year.

IBM has already produced samples of that chip running at clocks speeds of up to 1.2GHz.

Under terms of the companies' agreement, IBM will manufacture Alpha chips using its own 0.18-micron manufacturing process and with copper interconnect technology.

These chips will part of the next generation of Alpha chips, known as the Alpha 21364 family. They will integrate the Alpha processor core, memory controller and cache memory on a single chip.

IBM will also contribute ceramic packaging and cooling technologies to the new chips. IBM and Compaq are also exploring the possibility of manufacturing the next-generation Alpha chips using IBM's silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology on a 0.13-micron process, the company said.

Systems based on the 21364 chips are expected late next year.

Up until now, Samsung Electronics has been Compaq's sole manufacturing partner, with the exception of Intel, which, as noted, made the chips for a short time as part of a patent-infringement lawsuit settlement between it and Digital Equipment in 1997. In 1998, Compaq purchased Digital.

Samsung, however, will continue to make Alpha chips and plans to manufacture its own 21364 chips, starting at about 1GHz. Samsung's chips and those of IBM are expected to be complementary. It's likely that IBM and Samsung will not make the same kind of Alpha chip.

Alpha is also well-used with Linux operating system servers. And API -- which is backed by Samsung and Compaq as a marketing and engineering company for Alpha chips -- is now putting its marketing and engineering resources into branding Alpha as the chip to use when it comes to e-commerce and Linux.

"The preferred operating system by people buying (networking and server) products is Linux," said API President Gerry Talbot. "We intend to use Linux in the networking space."

This week, API announced that it has formed a new business unit for developing Alpha-based systems for Linux to play roles in Internet infrastructure.

The company is, for example, working to develop server appliance-like devices for increasing bandwidth of data that can be pumped out of a Web site.

The systems, for use in applications such as load balancing, would typically be clustered together in configurations of 16 to 30 dual-processor Alpha server appliance devices.

API also sells two Alpha products known as the UP1000 and UP2000, which are sold through the reseller channel and also used by some system vendors to build Alpha-based servers and other computers.

The two products include an Alpha chip, a motherboard and other components. API is selling them with 750MHz Alphas but will soon step those up to 800MHz or greater, and then to 1GHz by year's end, company officials said.

Along with IBM and Samsung, AMD also holds a license to manufacture Alpha but has announced no plans to do so.

Topics: IBM, Hardware, Intel, Linux, Samsung, Servers

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