Alpha Users Pressure Microsoft for Support

In the aftermath of Compaq Computer Corp.’s acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp., officials from both companies did their best to quell the concern of current or prospective customers of Digital’s high-end Alpha microprocessor. But that’s not enough, says a group of Alpha developers, who prepared an open letter to Microsoft Corp. to pressure the software giant to provide Alpha software products that are equivalent to their Intel counterparts.

At the time of Compaq’s acquisition of Digital, both Digital and Microsoft announced plans to increase Windows NT support for the Alpha microprocessor. Among other initiatives, Microsoft committed to continue shipping Windows NT products with the same features for both Intel and Alpha, including Windows NT Server and the BackOffice components. Because of a lack of any substantial application base, however, Alpha’s client-side support on the Windows NT platform is being neglected.

BackOffice versions of Microsoft server suites for the Alpha platform have, indeed, continued to appear, but Microsoft’s support for Alpha client-side applications has been weak. In an "Open Letter" addressed to Microsoft that was released late last month, members of the AlphaNT Source mailing list (, an independent Web site devoted to the advancement of Windows NT solutions running on Alpha hardware, called on Microsoft to increase its support for Alpha client-side application development.

"This is not an adversarial role that we are taking with Microsoft," contends Aaron Sakovich, founder and publisher of the AlphaNT Source. "We feel that we’ve found a way that Microsoft can improve their products while simultaneously offering consumers more choice than they’ve ever had before."

Microsoft currently provides support for major BackOffice family server applications on the Digital Alpha platform, but the majority of Redmond’s client-side application suites are not available on Alpha. Microsoft Visual Basic and Visual C++ are two notable exceptions, along with Microsoft Excel and Word. Many Alpha proponents maintain that the dearth of Visual Studio suite members available for the Alpha platform is a big problem for developers.

But according to Steve Fisher, an Alpha administrator with Comforce Corp. (Lake Success, N.Y.,, Alpha client-side support simply isn’t a compelling concern for many developers and IT organizations. "[The AlphaNT Source Open Letter] wants end-user applications, but that doesn’t worry me, because for server applications, Alpha is doing fine," Fisher maintains. "Alpha is the only high-end platform for NT too, and Microsoft needs that, since they want the enterprise market."

According to Fisher, Alpha is simply too expensive for many organizations to consider for client-side use, for either developers or task-based workers. "I'm not worried about the [lack of client-side] applications all that much, because Alpha’s probably just too expensive," he concludes. "It’s great for servers though."

Digital has developed a software emulation solution for Alpha called FX32! that spontaneously compiles native x86 application binaries as Alpha code, and both Microsoft and Digital have announced plans to build into NT 5.0 the Digital FX32! technology. But because FX32! is essentially emulation software, it introduces overhead and can have difficulty approximating the performance of native Alpha applications running on Alpha hardware. In the FX32! paradigm, application performance increases only after an application is compiled and recompiled and the FX32! software is able to tweak the recompiled code for the Alpha platform.

The AlphaNT Source’s Sakovich indicates that many of the Alpha users who signed the letter simply want Microsoft to release Alpha products commensurable with their Intel counterparts, but judging by the letter’s lukewarm response -- slightly more than 1,000 developers have signed it, and Microsoft hasn’t yet issued a response -- such may be an unrealistic goal.