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Alpha: the chip that time forgot?

While Q wriggles in agony, technology moves on

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Remember the Alpha processor? We do, and despite Compaq's well documented problems this year, the engineers seem to be plugging on. When Intel first started talking about the Merced processor all those years ago, we remember writing a story which quoted a DEC spokesman saying that the technology of the Alpha was future proof until the year 2010. A lot of water has passed through the fab plants since then but the Alpha engineers have not given up on their ideals, even though the emphasis in the industry has changed from architecture to marchitecture as Intel refined its spin-doctor techniques after the FDIV misadventure. So while Intel -- and AMD -- got plenty of coverage from the last Microprocessor Forum, Compaq's Alpha engineers seem to have got precious little. But it's worth looking at the roadmap just in case substance (architecture) ever triumphs over style (marchitecture) in the chip industry. Joel Emer, a principal development engineer at CompaQ, talked big megahertz at the Forum. The company's EV8 architecture, which uses a .125 (.13 shurely?) CMOS process, uses a copper interconnect and will reach 2.0GHz. Compaq does not say quite how much level two cache will appear on future Alphas, but our information is it will get to 4Mb far faster than Intel. Of course, Intel makes Alpha chips for Compaq now -- are the Chinese Walls high enough to prevent engineers peeking over at the open Alpha kimonos? Compaq is hoping to use Alpha processors more, rather than less in the future, and our information is it will attempt to shift fabbing away from Intel and over to Big Blue. That's a lot safer than allowing Chipzilla to get its mits on the parts. Emer promised that Q will produce additional multistream performance on the Alpha with multithreading, but also without having to get screwdrivers, hammers and slide rules out to re-architect the processor and at little extra cost. Without entering into territory where we might stumble into potholes, the Q plans for Alpha seem to predicate a new kind of chip parallelism. In other words, and as far as we understand it, the Alpha will be able to run four multiple instruction streams simultaneously on one processor, making one Alpha look a four-way system. EV8 has a direct Rambus interface and will use ccNuma for up to 512 way symmetric multiprocessing (SMP), said Emer. It also offers four way simultaneous multithreading. This seems like powerful stuff. We're sure we read some weeks back that particle center CERN had dumped its Alpha machines. Now, we learn that Intel has persuaded a "large worldwide organisation" to go with x.86 based workstations. But will the Alpha last until 2010 or will it be the chip that time forgot? The computer industry has a habit of relegating good but failed technology to a dusty filing cabinet in a forgotten building somewhere in a forgotten time. Nevertheless, the lessons, at least by the architects, are not forgotten. As a reader points out to us last week, a similar system to Rambus memory was employed by the military a considerable time back... Price versus performance, architecture over marchitecture or style over substance? And is the Alpha safe in Capellas' hands? If only Compaq would pick up the blower and invite us to learn more...we're interested. ®

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