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Compaq Bets Big on Itanium, Alpha Getting Phased Out

Compaq Computer Corp. solidified its commitment to Itanium Monday by handing over production of its high-end Alpha microprocessor to Intel Corp. and sentencing the chip to a phase-out ending in 2004.

"We will consolidate our entire 64-bit family of servers on the Itanium processors family, and this will be completed in stages by 2004," said Compaq CEO Michael Capellas in a news conference Monday.

Compaq will transfer a variety of resources -- including microprocessor compilers, Alpha development tools and even Alpha engineers and compiler experts - to Intel over the next few years.

Compaq, which picked up Alpha in its 1998 acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp., moved to reassure existing Alpha customers by promising to introduce its next-generation Alpha design - EV7 - sometime in late 2002. Compaq also claimed that it would continue to refresh its line of Alpha-based servers through 2003, as well.

Analyst Rob Enderle with the Giga Information Group predicts the Intel agreement will dampen enthusiasm for the microprocessor among existing and potential Alpha customers.

"When you have an announcement like this, people will treat it like a done deal. I'm not sure that Compaq has four years to phase it out because it's going to be increasingly hard to sell anything on Alpha," Enderle says.

Charles King, director of infrastructure hardware analysis with analyst firm Zona Research, disagrees.

"Compaq is going to be bringing the next generation of Alpha servers out and they're going to be offering full support over the next three years, so they're really trying to serve the needs of their users," he says. "The big question is how are some of the VARs and the folks who are developing independent software and applications going to react?"

The announcement also affects users of Compaq's NonStop Himalaya systems - the computer giant's "other" high-end platform. Compaq originally acquired the NonStop Himalaya technology - which runs on a MIPS microprocessor design licensed from MIPS Technologies Inc. - in its merger with reliability and availability specialist Tandem Computers Inc. in July 1997. Not surprisingly, Compaq announced that it planned to move its NonStop Himalaya systems to Itanium by 2004, as well.

In an effort to quell the concerns of existing NonStop Himalaya customers, Compaq promised to continue to design new MIPS-based NonStop Himalaya systems until it can begin shipping Itanium-based NonStop Himalaya systems sometime in 2004.

Platform Consolidation

As a result of its agreement with Intel, Compaq will consolidate its bevy of operating system platforms - which include the Alpha-based Tru64 Unix and OpenVMS platforms, along with the MIPS-based Compaq NonStop Kernel operating system - on Itanium. The computer giant is expected to begin shipping its first Itanium-based ProLiant servers sometime in Q3 2000.

"When we're done we'll have a single baseline across all our platforms," Capellas confirmed.

According to Zona Research's King, Compaq's latest move makes compelling strategic sense. "In the long run, standardizing on an architecture is probably going to save customers money," King says.

In this respect, Compaq joins Hewlett-Packard Co., which announced a consolidation away from PA-RISC toward Itanium and assisted Intel in Itanium development. IBM Corp. also announced broad support for Itanium -- it formed the so-called "Monterey Project" in conjunction with the Santa Cruz Operation in a joint effort to develop a dedicated Itanium-based operating system -- and plans to market its new AIX 5L operating system on Itanium.

Many industry observers say that they've expected an announcement of this kind since Compaq first purchased Digital.

"Alpha was never Compaq's strategic platform, and Compaq did not buy Digital for Alpha, they bought them more for their services organization," Giga's Enderle says.

Spotlight on Sun

Compaq's announcement leaves Sun Microsystems Inc. as the only vendor of note that seems to be hedging its bets with regard to Itanium support. Sun initially embraced Itanium aggressively, but after a round of mudslinging broke out in early 2000 between itself and Intel -- in which the chipmaker alleged that the Unix kingpin wasn't truly committed to marketing its flagship Solaris operating system on Itanium -- Sun's commitment to Itanium became more ambiguous.

"Sun's story in this area has changed several times," agrees Dan Kusnetzky, director of server operating environments with International Data Corp. "As [Itanium's] arrival in the market became later and later, Sun waffled on its plans for a Solaris port. Intel, by the way, seemed rather angry about this and made several public statements about Sun's lack of commitment."

For his part, Fred Rehhausser, marketing manager for Solaris Platforms with Sun, maintains that his company has a 32-bit version of Solaris ready and ported to the next-generation Intel microprocessor, but claims that he can't comment on his company's plans for Itanium and 64-bit support.

"For Itanium we have basically achieved our stated objective, which was to have an OEM-ready release for Itanium that would be compatible with Itanium," he says.

Itanium is Intel's first true 64-bit microprocessor, and is optimized for 64-bit code. As such, it's expected to compete with Solaris running on Sun's proprietary SPARC hardware in high-end enterprise computing environments.

If anything, today's announcement could send a wake-up call to Sun, speculates Giga's Enderle, who says that Compaq's experience with Alpha demonstrates that it's becoming increasingly difficult for enterprise hardware vendors to market solutions based on proprietary hardware - especially when the rest of the industry as a whole is converging around a new (de facto) standard.

"At the end of the day, even though Capellas really liked the Alpha product, Compaq just really couldn't afford to be in the chip business," Enderle says. "So how long can Sun realistically maintain this stance, especially when their competitors will be able to routinely beat them on price?" -- Stephen Swoyer

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.