Editorial: From Alpha to Omega

The Alpha chip's days are numbered

The future of Windows 2000 (Win2K) and SQL Server has "Intel Inside" written all over it. On August 23, Compaq announced that it was dropping Alpha support for the current 32-bit version of Windows NT, and that Linux and OpenVMS would become the main operating systems for the Alpha. At first, this announcement left an open door for Alpha on 64-bit Windows 2000. However, soon after the Compaq announcement, Microsoft stated that it planned no future releases of Microsoft products for the Alpha platform. I'm not an Alpha loyalist, nor do I have a bias against Intel systems. In fact, I like my Dell workstation. But as a long-time NT user, I wasn't happy to hear this news.

This abandonment of Alpha is a lose-lose scenario for all parties—Compaq, Microsoft, and their customers, including you and me. Compaq is the big loser in this deal. In spite of Compaq's statements to the contrary, this move signals the end of the Alpha chip. If the market wouldn't support Alpha on NT, the market won't support Alpha on Linux, which has no stronger tie to Alpha hardware than it does to Intel hardware. With no tangible market, the Alpha chip's days are numbered. Compaq paid a premium price for the Digital acquisition and the Alpha chip was the crown jewel of that purchase. Perhaps Compaq didn't expect Microsoft to pull the plug on 64-bit Alpha, but their long-standing partnership suggests otherwise.

Microsoft also loses on this deal because Win2K has lost the last vestige of platform independence. Microsoft touted NT's cross-platform support, and NT initially supported four hardware platforms. Surely NT designers are disappointed that Win2K has no better platform support than Windows 98. The Win2K architecture might remain open to other processors. However, with no other viable choices besides Intel, that openness becomes a moot point.

Customers also lose out on this deal. Without Alpha to spur some competition, Intel wouldn't have delivered the high performance levels that it does in the Pentium and upcoming Merced chips. Also, the Alpha Server was a terrific database server, delivering higher speeds and more efficient I/O processing than comparable Intel systems. It's no coincidence that Alphas were used to set most of the Transaction Processing Council (TPC) performance records for SQL Server.

My primary SQL Server system runs on a DEC Alpha Server. I had planned to upgrade this system to Win2K and the next version of SQL Server. The Alpha abandonment forces me to make other plans, which will mean changing the server—an expense I hadn't planned for. Although I don't know which system I'll move to, I know that for better or worse—probably for worse—it will say "Intel Inside."

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