Microsoft backs away from Alpha

The bad news keeps rolling in for NT-on-Alpha. Now, Microsoft ends development.

While Microsoft is committing to support existing NT-on-Alpha customers, the software giant isn't going to support new NT development on any architecture other than Intel's, starting in September.

"Microsoft is committed to developing Windows on the platforms that customers demand. They've overwhelmingly chosen to implement Windows NT on the Intel platform," said company officials in a prepared statement.

In recent years, Microsoft has dropped support for NT on MIPS and the PowerPC processors, citing lack of demand. While NT-on-Alpha never sold like gangbusters, as both Microsoft and Compaq Computer admit, Microsoft's move to back away from Alpha throws into question the extent to which Microsoft will push the scalability envelope in the future. Microsoft has been working closely with clustering pioneers at Digital Equipment first, and now Compaq, to make NT able to handle symmetric multiprocessing and clustering hardware.

Last week, Compaq Computer pulled the plug on NT-on-Alpha work by laying off 100 or so of the engineers working to support and develop the platform. Many, if not all of the engineers slated to be let go in early September work at the former DECWest facility in Bellevue, Washington. They work on a daily basis with Microsoft on NT kernel, clustering and 64-bit development.

One source close to Microsoft said the company is considering hiring some of the Compaq NT experts. Microsoft had no comment on the hiring question. In fact, until Monday, Microsoft declined to comment on any aspect of its plans for supporting NT on Alpha.

On Monday, via a prepared statement, Microsoft said it will continue to support Alpha-based NT Workstation 4.0 and NT Server 4.0 customers. Microsoft also will include an Alpha version of the upcoming NT 4.0 Service Pack 6, and plans to continue to provide hot fixes for Alpha-based NT 4.0 and BackOffice products like SQL Server and Exchange Server concurrently with Intel-based hot fixes. But as of Windows 2000 Beta 3 Release Candidate 2, expected to go to testers the first week of September, Microsoft will no longer support Windows 2000 on Alpha.

Both Microsoft and Compaq say the two companies plan to work together on 64-bit Windows versions. Indeed, Compaq already has done quite a bit of work on the compiler front, in terms of developing a 64-bit NT-on-Merced tool set.

But the exact form this cooperation will take is uncertain. Microsoft has been building "64-bitness" into Windows 2000 but won't claim that Windows 2000 is a true 64-bit OS once it ships late this year. Instead, some kind of NT64 update, which will feature a 32-bit subsystem allowing existing 32-bit applications to run seamlessly, is expected from Microsoft at the same time that Intel ships its IA-64 Merced processor -- likely late 2000. "Microsoft is still internally developing 64-bit for both platforms [Intel and Alpha]," said a Microsoft spokeswoman. But she referred all questions as to whether a 64-bit NT-on-Alpha product will go commercial to Compaq.

For its part, Compaq is telling its own people and partners that Alpha will continue to be the development hardware for 64-bit NT. According to an internal email message sent by Senior Vice President Enrico Pesatori late last Friday, Compaq's decision to drop 32-bit NT-on-Alpha work "in no way diminishes our strong partnership with Microsoft or our commitment to Alpha. To increase our focus on Windows NT in the enterprise, we will continue to partner aggressively with Microsoft on development of 64-bit Windows NT. Alpha is the development platform for 64-bit Windows NT".

Pesatori also emphasised that Compaq will continue to invest in Alpha "as a core component of our NonStop eBusiness strategy". But the operating systems of choice for the platform will be Linux, Tru64 Unix and OpenVMS.

"We will drive Alpha volumes by leveraging the growth of Linux," said Pesatori in his email message. "As we have already announced, Alpha will become the engine for future generations of our Himalaya systems, further extending Himalaya into markets requiring robust 24x7 solutions."

Jason Perlow contributed to this report

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