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The Death of Alpha on NT

Alpha on Windows NT is dead. As far as NT goes, it’s an Intel world.

Last week, Compaq announced that it was laying off more than 100 of its Alpha/NT employees in its DECwest facility located near the Microsoft campus. This group of developers was tasked with making Alpha on NT a technical reality. Citing Compaq's decision and the strength of Intel's architecture and systems, Microsoft says it will discontinue development of future 32-bit and 64-bit Alpha products across its existing product line.

Now, for the rest of the story...

The Alpha on NT story has its roots back to the inception of NT. Dave Cutler, NT’s creator, was working on a new OS, code-named "Mica," for Digital Equipment. Digital intended Mica to be a successor to VMS and based it closely on VMS (thus, NT's strong roots in VMS). The Mica team worked at a Seattle-based location called DECwest, an office started by Cutler in the early 80s when he was working on Digital’s MicroVAX I project.

For some reason, Digital killed the Mica project. Seizing the opportunity, Microsoft picked up Dave Cutler and his Mica team and funded the continuation of the Mica project within Microsoft. A few years later, Windows NT was born. Digital, however, suspected that NT was actually Mica reborn and hired an OS specialist to determine the similarities. According to inside sources, many portions of NT’s code and even the comments were identical to Mica. As a result, Digital sued Microsoft. Microsoft and Digital settled out of court and the result was the Digital/Microsoft Alliance.

As part of the alliance, Microsoft promised to support the Alpha processor on NT and to ensure that Microsoft’s BackOffice products (i.e., SQL Server, Exchange Server, Internet Information Server—IIS) would be fully compatible and made available at the same time as their Intel equivalents. Digital added more than 100 engineers to DECWest, tasked with making Alpha on NT a technical reality. As part of the agreement, Digital (now Compaq) and Microsoft would have a perpetual cross-license of NT-related technology including full access to the source code.

What was NOT promised in the alliance was support for Microsoft’s Office, developer tools, or any other desktop products. If Digital wanted its Alpha chip to achieve application parity with Intel, Digital would need to fund the marketing and development efforts to the tune of millions of dollars each year. Digital did an OK job of marketing Alpha technology, creating a 32-bit Intel emulator called FX!32, attracting third-party software vendors, getting outside manufacturers to fabricate Alpha chips, and providing a line of Alpha-based workstations and servers. Other than a few isolated events such as Scalability Day or WinHEC, Microsoft did not market Alpha on NT.

When Compaq purchased Digital, many people feared that the Alpha chip would die. However, Compaq pledged renewed support for Alpha by announcing that future versions of its Tandem Himalaya computers would move from a MIPS chip to an Alpha chip. In addition, Digital UNIX (Tru64), NT, and VMS would continue to use and improve Alpha technology. Compaq recently added Alpha support to Linux.

The 64-bit question, however, remained: Can the Alpha ever achieve the economies of scale to compete with Intel or should it be positioned as a low-volume, high-margin chip for high-end computing? The answer is clear. It would be a high-end, low-volume chip, which is great for Himalaya, Tru64, and OpenVMS, but didn’t fit the high-volume NT market. As a result, Alpha on NT marketing was nonexistent. Any Alpha/NT momentum created by Digital ended abruptly.

Originally, NT supported four CPU types: MIPS, Alpha, PowerPC, and Intel. Over time, the marketing and development resources required to pursue the NT market reduced the market to NT/Intel. Today, Linux supports many CPU types, including Alpha. Is this a win for open-source vs. closed-source development? Will the open-source community continue to support Alpha over the next 4 years, even if volumes don’t support it? Perhaps there are enough open-source Linux developers who will keep Alpha/Linux alive for years in spite of market dynamics—purely for the love of developing and supporting the Linux community. Time will tell.

The Future
Today, Dave Cutler’s team is using Alpha-based systems to develop 64-bit NT. At WinHEC (April 99), Microsoft was able to boot 64-bit NT on an Alpha-based computer. However, at the current pace of development, Intel might deliver its 64-bit chip (Merced) by the time 64-bit NT is ready. If this happens, the fact that Alpha was first would offer little competitive advantage. Microsoft will position the 64-bit NT Server as a high-end, low-volume solution for those applications that need maximum scalability—e.g., a large SQL Server database that needs gigabytes of RAM for caching. Would the 64-bit version of NT perform significantly better on the Alpha vs. Merced for this type of application? If not, then being first and fastest would NOT overcome Intel’s competitive advantages: compatibility and cost. In the past, Compaq would position VMS, True64, or a Himalaya system for a highly scalable database application. Will Compaq position 64-bit NT against VMS, Tru64, or Himalaya? Not likely. Could a 64-bit Alpha Windows 2000 Professional (Win2K Pro) workstation save Alpha on NT? No way. Therefore, Alpha on NT is dead.

Will an Intel-only version of NT fundamentally change NT? "Not likely," says Mark Russinovich, author of the NT Internals column for Windows NT Magazine. "There’s already a significant amount of Intel and Alpha-specific optimization code in the kernel. The hardware abstraction layer (HAL) won’t be affected because it’s still a fundamental part of the OS. I believe Microsoft would want to leave the door open for other chips in the future," says Russinovich.

Over the years, I’ve received numerous emails from happy and frustrated users of Alpha on NT. Administrators using one BackOffice application like Exchange Server on an Alpha-based server seemed satisfied with the performance and reliability of their systems. The extra scalability their Alpha systems provided made a huge difference. For Alpha-workstation users, there is the constant frustration of not being able to use the latest version of Microsoft’s developer tools, Office, and other applications. And although FX!32 provided much needed compatibility, many times it did not allow performance of its Intel equivalents, which defeated the original reason why someone would buy an Alpha—speed!

Microsoft and Compaq have stated they plan to continue support for Alpha on NT through Service Pack 6 (SP6) for NT 4.0. This will let existing users get full use out of their systems, but cut them off from Win2K. Other sources such as Aaron Sakovich’s AlphaNT site ( will continue to support Alpha on NT users with the latest news, drivers, applications, and tips.

The Impact of Alpha
My heart goes out to the community of loyalists, users, developers, and vendors that have tirelessly supported Alpha on NT over the years. I believe Alpha on NT set a performance bar that motivated Intel to improve its chip offerings much faster than it had in the past. We’ve seen significant performance gains for Intel over the past 2 years—it’s hard to keep up. The gap has closed significantly. The loss of Alpha on NT might slow this process down. The loss also reduces any leverage Microsoft might have had against Intel. All NT eggs are in one basket now, for better or worse. One of these days, the hare might beat the tortoise, but not today.

Editor's Note: For additional reading about Alpha on NT, see the following Windows NT Magazine articles. (To view the articles online, you must be a Windows NT Magazine subscriber.)

"The Performance Curve" by Aaron Sakovich, January 1999

"Living with Alpha: Finding Help" by Aaron Sakovich, February 1998

"AlphaPowered" by Mark Smith, August 1997

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