Special report: Compaq drops Windows 2000 on Alpha

Shocking or inevitable? Compaq Computer dropped a bombshell this weekend when it announced that it was giving up on the development of Windows 2000 for the Alpha microprocessor. This leaves Windows 2000 as an Intel-only operating system, at least until a 64-bit version arrives next year. The 64-bit version of Windows 2000 will run on the Alpha as well as Intel's IA-64 architecture, and Compaq says it still plans to support this enhanced version of the product.

"We do not plan to support 32-bit Windows 2000 on Alpha systems," a Compaq spokesman said Friday.

The decision to drop Alpha support for Windows 2000 comes at a curious time, as the product is literally 23 months into its 25-month development. Microsoft was expecting to ship Windows 2000 by the end of the year, and while those plans will likely proceed as planned for the Intel version, Compaq's decision signals the end of an era. When Microsoft first released Windows NT, the predecessor to Windows 2000, it was designed as a multi-platform solution running on MIPS, PowerPC, Alpha and Intel chips. Over time, processor support dwindled as first MIPS then PowerPC compatibility was dropped due to low sales. Compaq's decision this week effectively ends Microsoft's claims of processor agnosticism, though the Intel version was always the volume leader. Terry Shannon, author of Alpha newsletter "Shannon Knows Compaq," says the company has sold less than 500,000 Alpha systems over the course of the product's lifetime, and only 10-15% of those are running Windows NT. Meanwhile, there are over 40 million computers running Windows NT on Intel.

The problem with the Alpha release of NT, of course, is that it is a 32-bit design wedged into a 64-bit system that did little to take advantage of the superior hardware. Alpha processors have always been speed champs, but Microsoft's 32-bit design held back the performance of the underlying hardware, giving customers little incentive to purchase the more expensive--and alarmingly less compatible--Alpha version. Indeed, software for the Alpha version is practically non-existent. Had Microsoft sped development of its 64-bit version of NT or at least evangelized the platform to programmers, Alpha support for NT might not have ceased. Instead, Alpha users were forced to either run the more voluminous library of NT software for Intel through an emulator which slowed performance further and caused compatibility issues, or to simply do without.

From Microsoft's standpoint, this retreat is a telling warning about Windows 2000 and the future of NT in the enterprise. As the growth of Windows NT slows, many administrators are taking another look at UNIX variants, especially the freeware Linux, which are known for their scalability, performance, and reliability. And because the development of Windows 2000 has been plodding along for over two years, many doubt that Microsoft has what it takes to deliver an OS that is reliable enough for the high-end systems typically targeted by Alpha. Indeed, Compaq will continue to support various versions of UNIX on the Alpha, including its own and the popular Red Hat version of Linux. Why? Because these OSes actually take advantage of the chip and they outsell NT on that platform, often by a wide margin. And in the world of enterprise computing, performance along with reliability, is where it's at

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