Compaq, Microsoft Jettison NT on Alpha

Compaq and Microsoft have pulled the plug on Windows NT on Alpha -- relegating the platform to a waning role in development of 64-bit Windows 2000 leading to a gradual extinction as existing IT deployments migrate to other platforms.

Compaq Computer Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have pulled the plug on Windows NT on Alpha -- relegating the platform to a waning role in development of 64-bit Windows 2000 leading to a gradual extinction as existing IT deployments migrate to other platforms.

The scale of the decision unfolded slowly last month. Compaq notified about 100 engineers, mostly at the former DECwest development facility in Bellevue, Wash., of layoffs and reassignments. The company, in the midst of severe financial belt-tightening, was stopping all development work on 32-bit Alpha for Windows NT after Windows NT 4.0 Service Pack 6 (SP6) is released later this year.

The next week, Compaq officials revealed that they were ending development of Alpha as product platform for 64-bit Windows 2000. Microsoft immediately squashed any hopes among Alpha users that it would assume development for the platform. Instead, Microsoft moved quickly to purge support for 32-bit Alpha from the Windows 2000 Release Candidate 2 code, scheduled to go to beta testers early this month.

Alpha has been key to development of 64-bit Windows 2000, which is scheduled to come out next year after Intel Corp.’s expected release of its first 64-bit chip, the Merced. Alpha, in the meantime, provides the only available 64-bit processor that support Windows NT.

Microsoft uses a combination of Alpha processors and Merced emulators in its labs for development of 64-bit Windows, says Craig Beilinson, lead product manager for Windows 2000 at Microsoft.

"Currently, our primary development platform for 64-bit Windows is Alpha; however, it will be gradually replaced by Intel’s Merced systems as they become more widely available," Beilinson says.

Both companies vow to support existing 32-bit NT-on-Alpha customers. Beyond SP6, Microsoft will provide hotfixes concurrent with Intel hotfix releases for its current 32-bit Alpha product line, including Windows NT Server, Windows NT Workstation, SQL Server and Exchange Server.

Compaq plans support for Windows NT 4.0 deployments through the first quarter of 2001. Through trade-in programs and migration services, the company will steer existing customers toward Windows NT/2000 on its ProLiant servers or toward other operating systems supported on Alpha, including Tru64 Unix, OpenVMS or Linux. Compaq officials say they remain committed to Alpha without Windows NT.

The speed with which Microsoft jettisoned Alpha in the wake of Compaq’s move says much about the continuing importance to Microsoft of multiple platforms. When Windows NT was released in 1993, Microsoft marketed the portability of the platform, emphasizing that along with commodity PCs and servers, the operating system ran on several varieties of RISC processors. At the time that included the MIPS R4000 and MIPS R4400, the then-Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) Alpha and the Intergraph Clipper. Now that those have fallen by the wayside, Microsoft is back where it started before Windows NT, as a vendor whose operating system runs exclusively on Intel processors.

In an internal Compaq document that was leaked and then published on the Internet, Compaq officials said NT sales account for less than 2 percent of AlphaServer shipments. With the release of Intel’s Profusion chipset for eight-way systems, both Compaq and Microsoft are encouraging higher-end customers to move to the Intel platform anyway.

According to analyst Jonathan Eunice of Illuminata Inc. (www.illuminata.com), it makes sense that Microsoft’s interest in Alpha has waned.

"Originally, Microsoft needed a scalability proof point, which then-Digital’s attention, middleware products, porting and tuning efforts, and other contributions provided. But today, not only doesn’t Alpha drive significant business, its usefulness as a scalability proof point has evaporated as NT has proven itself on 4X and 8X Intel-based servers," Eunice opines.

For the most part, users seem unsurprised, though disappointed, by the developments. Aaron Sakovich, who maintains the AlphaNT Source (www.alphant.com) Web site for NT-on-Alpha enthusiasts, summed up the decision in two words on the site’s homepage: "It stinks."

Say goodbye to the Alpha chip for Windows NT/2000. Compaq and Microsoft have ended development for the NT-on-Alpha platform as a parallel product to NT-on-Intel.