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Windows 2000 reportedly returning to Alpha platform

According to sources at Compaq Computer, the company will soon announce that Windows 2000 is coming back to the 64-bit Alpha microprocessor platform it abandoned last August. In a dramatic and sudden move on August 20, 1999, Compaq announced that it was dropping support for Microsoft's 32-bit version of Windows 2000 on its Alpha platform. But the company said that it would support the 64-bit version of Windows 2000 (Windows 2000/64, code-named "Janus"), which was then being designed for the Intel Itanium (Merced) and the Alpha. But days later, an angry Microsoft responded to the Compaq announcement with one of its own: Due to lack of support for the 32-bit version of Windows 2000, Microsoft said, it was also canceling Windows 2000/64 on Alpha. And with that move, Windows 2000 became an Intel-only OS.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. When Microsoft was initially developing Windows NT, the predecessor to Windows 2000, OS architect Dave Cutler ensured that the product would work on a variety of platforms by first building NT on RISC chips from MIPS. This prevented NT's developers from taking the easy way out on Intel by hard coding in Intel-specific assembly code that might have made the product perform better at the expense of cross-platform compatibility. Eventually, Windows NT was made available on a variety of platforms, including Intel, MIPS, Alpha, and PowerPC.

But by the time Windows 2000 (nee NT 5.0) came around, the MIPS and PowerPC versions were dead. And during the entire development of Windows 2000, Alpha builds were completed side-by-side with their Intel counterparts. The oddly timed Compaq announcement--made just weeks before the release of Release Candidate 2 (RC2), 23 months into the OS' development--brought plans for a dual platform release to a close. But Microsoft's 64-bit team--led by Cutler--kept building Win2K on Alpha because they had yet to get working Itanium prototypes and Alpha was the only viable 64-bit system then in existence. And work on the Alpha version of Win2K actually continued after the Intel version of the product was completed, I'm told.

The return to Windows 2000, if true, was the result of a palace coup of sorts within Compaq. Sources explained that CEO Michael Capellas never wanted the company to back off from its Windows 2000/Alpha plans, despite poor sales. Capellas, apparently heartened by the departure of Enrico Pesatori, who had architected the decision to abandon Windows 2000 in the first place, has reportedly worked closely with Microsoft to ensure that its premier operating system is finally released for the Alpha. "It's a done deal," I was told Wednesday morning. "Capellas wants Windows 2000 on Alpha and he regrets that Compaq ever cancelled those plans." But there is some confusion about which version of Windows 2000 that will be ported to the Alpha. My current understanding is that it will be Windows 2000/64, not the 32-bit version that was in progress last year. It's hoped that adding Windows 2000 support will help step the slowing momentum of the Alpha, which has had to rely on Compaq UNIX and Linux for new sales. The market for these products, however, is small and Compaq will need a mass market OS such as Windows to accelerate growth.

Also up in the air are 64-bit versions of the Microsoft Servers products, such as SQL Server and Exchange Server. While the existence of such products is unknown, one might assume that they would be ported as well, since the platform would be severely hampered without them and Microsoft is building 64-bit Intel versions as well.

UPDATE: Compaq has apparently denied that any work is being done on Windows 2000/64 for the Alpha. Read more.

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