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An Omega for Alpha?

Deafening silence from Compaq and API beggars questions

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Analysis AMD and Intel have attained the 1GHz Holy Grail, while Compaq's Alpha processor—billed as the fastest processor on the planet—continues to languish at the ~700MHz level. The 933MHz and 1GHz Alpha chips promised for 1Q00 by Samsung Semiconductor and Alpha Processor, Incorporated have yet to materialize, and API recently lost chief marketing honcho Jeff Borkowski. Is the Alpha architecture ready to join the VAXasaurus in the silicon Jurassic Park? Not so, claim insiders at the Big Q. While Alpha is now a distant second in the clock-speed derby, the architecture maintains its benchmark bragging rights and floating-point performance superiority. EV68 processors running at 1.2GHz are up and running in Compaq labs; IBM is delivering samples of 0.18µ copper-based Alpha chips to Compaq, and the Alpha roadmap now calls for 0.18µ CMOS8 parts running as fast as 2.4GHz, and 0.13µ CMOS9 parts running at speeds as high as 4.8GHz. Conspicuously absent during the past year were significant improvements in Alpha clock speeds. Systems based on 667MHz processors have been available since last summer; 700MHz EV67 upgrades for GS60 and GS140 TurboLaser systems have been shipping for some time, and 733MHz EV67-based WildFire seed systems are now being delivered to selected customers. During a 12-month period that saw Alpha clock speeds increase by a mere 66MHz, IA-32 processor speeds have increased by more than 300MHz, or about five times as much as Alpha. Missing from the Alpha equation are production-quality systems based on the 833MHz Alpha EV68 processor that Samsung has been producing since mid-1999. As it turns out, Samsung experienced serious yield problems with the 833MHz part. Given the expenses associated with refining the 833MHz process, Samsung elected to focus on retooling its fab lines to produce Alpha chips running at 1GHz and higher speeds. Accordingly, the 833MHz part is likely to be used only for a near-term GS80-GS320 WildFire CPU upgrade (the WildFire architecture is compatible with processors running at 104MHz speed increments, hence 833MHz is the first feasible upgrade target for the incumbent 729MHz EV67 WildFire CPU). The next performance plateau for the remainder of the Alpha range should be ~1GHz, a target which should be attained Reasonably Soon Now. Elsewhere on the Alpha front, Compaq continues to experience decent growth in the low-end and midrange product space. On a year-over-year basis, the 4FQ99 Alpha order rate increased by 25 percent while low-end shipments increased by more than 30 percent. Not surprisingly, Linux is the engine for low-end growth: the Q reports that Linux now ships on "double-digit" quantities of entry AlphaServers. ® Terry Shannon is editor and publisher of Shannon knows Compaq. He can be contacted at this email address

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