AlphaNT Devotees Still Dream the Impossible Dream

SometimesAaron Sakovich feels a little bit like Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills ofa technology world that has passed by something he considers an operating modethat should have made it big: Microsoft's WindowsNT platforms running on Unix-basedAlpha servers.

They'rereliable and scalable, but dead as far as industry moguls are concerned. No onesupports it. Companies don't want to talk about it, primarily because there'snothing more to talk about.

ButSakovich continues to preach the values of AlphaNT, much as he did back in 1994when he created The AlphaNT Source. Sakovichand about 600 other devotees continue to fight to keep AlphaNT alive,exchanging information and programs they've created on their own.

"Itstarted out as a place to collect applications and tools native to Alpha backin 1994, when I was a service consultant for Digital," says Sakovich, asystems analyst for a company in the Northeast. "I had to learn all I couldabout Alpha servers. I discovered how well NT ran on it, and I've been devotedto it ever since."

Sakovichsays AlphaNT runs special-effects programs well, and is excellent for finiteelement analysis and computer-aided design programs. He claims it also had alot of potential for Microsoft's SQL Server.

"Microsoftactually demonstrated SQL's 64-bit capability on Alpha at a show back in 1999[Windows Hardware Engineering Conference ’99]," Sakovich says. "Youcould run an NT application which would take 10 to 12 minutes on 32-bit thatwould take 30 seconds on Alpha's 64-bit."

Sakovichstarted getting large amounts of e-mail from software vendors and otherindependent engineers wanting to put applications on his Alpha site, and heeventually developed a mail list that topped out around 800 members. In thepast, Compaq's Alpha systems supported NTaggressively, and both Compaq and Microsoft monitored Sakovich's site. He gotfree hardware from Compaq and free software from Microsoft to help develop hisapplications. He once gave away 200 copies of Visual Basic on his site, donatedby Compaq and Microsoft.

So who arethese die-hards, and why are they so dedicated to this Latin of technologies?Here's a sampling of engineers from The AlphaNT Source mailing list and some oftheir views on AlphaNT:

Jonas Gustavsson, who ported several games and Alpha tools to the site,says, "I like the architecture and I still use some machines on AlphaNT[the rest have gone to Linux]. The stuff I release on AlphaNT is mostly stuff Iwant for myself."

Rich Peters, a CD Composer developer, says, "An Alpha running NTis/was the most reliable and easy to support hardware I've used. At one time itwas the fastest, and the price/performance ratio was very good".

Alan Young, who ported X11 client libraries among other applications tothe AlphaNT source, says, "I have two main reasons. First, the Alpha chipis a very good chip. It's a stable, proven, 64-bit architecture since 1992. Andit's fast. Second, I really like Lightwave by Newtek. Lightwave and Alpha to meare made for each other. Since Lightwave only runs on NT, well, that's probablymy main reason I continue to use AlphaNT.

As timewent by and Microsoft grew more devoted to Intel's architecture, AlphaNT loststeam. "Essentially, Microsoft prevented the development of workstationsfor AlphaNT with astronomical pricing," Sakovich says. "That's whathalted the development. Because of Microsoft's relationship with Intel, therewas nowhere for AlphaNT to go."

By August1999, Compaq stopped supporting AlphaNT, as well. "People I know at Compaqwere taken by surprise by that," Sakovich says. "Clearly it wasCompaq bowing down to its partner. Compaq just didn't want to make anywaves."

Even Alpha Processor has lostinterest in it.

"About a year ago [around the same time as the Compaq withdrawal],we decided there wasn't a strong market for AlphaNT, and there was no way tosupport the future development of it," says Guy Ludden, marketing managerat Alpha Processor.

It was thebitter end for AlphaNT -- formally anyway. But it wasn't the end of the storyfor the engineers who continued to rely on it.

"We have two groups on our mailing list: purist engineers who know agood solution and tend to stick with it no matter what, and engineers who keepon running simply because it hasn't failed them," Sakovich says. "Westarted out with a few packages being ported to and from the AlphaNT source,and it kind of took off. We've lost no more than 15 percent of our memberssince the Compaq announcement."

Since Intelstill hasn't released a 64-bit processor, some engineers have been running betakits of Windows 2000 on Alpha. Others are moving away from Windowsapplications, turning to the Linux operating system. Sakovich himself hasdeveloped a liking for OpenVMS from Compaq. In the end, it will all come downto money -- the cost of creating something for AlphaNT versus something onanother platform that's obtainable at a more reasonable price. As far asdevelopment goes, it's a war AlphaNT or even an Alpha2000 will eventually lose.

"Littleby little, it's melting away in terms of new applications," Sakovich says."But there's a lot of legacy outthere. AlphaNT won't go away soon, that's for darn sure. Too many peoplerunning NT on Alpha find it an effective solution."

Index:

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash., www.microsoft.com
Compaq Computer Corp., Houston, www.compaq.com
Alpha Processor Inc., Concord, Mass., www.alpha-processor.com