Compaq to pull plug on NT on Alpha

After weeks of rumours, confirmation: Compaq ends development for Windows NT on Alpha, ending jobs for about 100 people.
Written by Lisa DiCarlo, Contributor and  Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Compaq Computer this week laid off roughly 100 engineers responsible for developing Windows NT on the Alpha platform, several informed sources said.

In what may be a related move, Wes Melling, former vice president of OpenVMS and NT integration at Compaq, resigned this week, sources said.

Many, if not all of the engineers are being let go from Compaq West, the former DECWest facility in Bellevue, Washington, which has worked hand-in-hand for several years with Microsoft on NT kernel, clustering and 64-bit support. Digital Equipment was one of the first, if not the first, major OEM to back Microsoft's NT operating system. And Microsoft's chief NT architect, David Cutler, is a former Digital employee, as are a number of people who have worked for Cutler at Microsoft.

Compaq officials did not return a request for comment. But in recent weeks, Compaq has been playing up Linux, True64 Unix and OpenVMS as the preferred operating systems for Alpha.

Microsoft officials also did not respond to questions regarding whether or not Microsoft itself will continue to support NT/ Windows 2000 on Alpha. If it decides to discontinue NT on Alpha support, Microsoft's flagship server operating system will support only the Intel architecture. Over the past several years, Microsoft has whittled down NT's cross-platform support by killing support for MIPS and PowerPC.

While the two main backers of NT and Alpha were unavailable, others with vested interest in the NT-on-Alpha platform were scrambling to respond to Compaq's moves late last week.

A Web site called AlphaNT Source, which follows technical and marketing developments of the Alpha-on-NT platform, derided the decision. "By early September, the engineering staff at DECWest will, for the most part, be gone," the Web site states. "The only folks with work left right now are those people working to get Service Pack 6 [of Windows NT 4] out the door. Over 100 souls and their families are having their lives torn asunder because they did a great job and made NT on Alpha the only alternative to Intel's monopoly."

AlphaNT Web master Aaron Sakovitch said that NT on Alpha has been a large financial drain on Digital and now Compaq. Discontinuing NT on Alpha support is "a pure business decision on Compaq's part", Sakovitch said.

Another source said that Alpha-on-NT would not be supported past Service Pack 6 of Windows NT 4.

But officials with Alpha Processor, an NT-on-Alpha hardware vendor and a company backed by Compaq, said their understanding was that Compaq planned on killing 32-bit NT-on-Alpha support, but that it would continue to work separately and in conjunction with Microsoft on 64-bit NT-on-Alpha technologies. "It was just too expensive for Compaq to support 32-bit NT on both platforms [Intel and Alpha]," said Alpha Processor vice president of marketing Jeff Borkowski. Borkowski added that Linux has taken hold on the Alpha architecture far more quickly than most vendors anticipated.

Compaq's new CEO Michael Capellas said during the second quarter earnings call last month that the Houston company would be forced to trim expenses by laying off about 8,000 employees. However, he didn't say where the cuts would come from.

Joseph Pollizzi, deputy division head at the Space Telescope Science Institute and former president of DECUS the Digital Equipment's User Society, said he's not surprised by the decision. "For the past six months, Compaq seems to be promoting Tru64 Unix and Linux integration more so than with NT," Pollizzi said. He added that Microsoft should leverage Alpha's 64-bit addressing for Windows.

One source close to Microsoft said, "No one at Microsoft ever expected that [NT on Alpha] to be a volume play. But they did expect it to be the architecture play. This was a big deal at things like [Microsoft's] Scalability Day, where they showed how scaleable NT could be."

But for Compaq to pull the plug on Alpha on NT just before Microsoft ships Windows 2000 seems like strange timing, the source added. "NT on Alpha was like a Cadillac running at half-speed. But the Alpha was really going to be able to take advantage of its 64-bitness once Microsoft shipped Windows 2000 and especially the Datacenter version."

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