HP’s Alpha Processor Bidding Adieu

The battle for processor speed supremacy is only part of the equation in a successful computer chip, but the Alpha line — passed on from Digital Equipment to Compaq to HP — was built on the premise that speed was the key.

Now, after a dozen years, the Alpha line — which many credit for sparking a speed war among today’s giants Intel and AMD — is being phased out, but leaving a legacy on today’s computing system and living on in the form of AMD’s Athlon XP processor.

“It was certainly among the fastest processors that have ever been produced,” Mercury Research president Dean McCarron told TechNewsWorld. “Simply by that, it created competitor interest to have fast processors as well.”

Good Speed, Bad Timing

The Alpha line of processors was used primarily in high-performance settings that required faster processor speed than was available at the time of its debut more than 10 years ago. The Alpha also had the support of Microsoft, which shipped a version of Windows NT for the Alpha in 1999.

However, the Alpha pushed speed at perhaps the wrong time, when the PC was emerging as the preferred platform for successful processors.

“It had a profound impact on computer architecture,” McCarron said. “There were certain characteristics of the market that were working against it. The market greatly prefers backward compatibility with previous platforms. Eventually, [chipmakers] realized that they needed to address the PC market.”

Too Fast for Own Good

While the Alpha was the first processor to break the 1-GHz mark, Alpha suffered from a lack of applications and support, including support from Microsoft.

By the time Alpha backers realized the need to look beyond clock speed and consider overall, real-world performance, Intel and AMD had already zoned in on the idea to provide better processors.

“The net effect of it was that the performance alone is not enough to buy you a market,” McCarron said.

The industry analyst compared the path of the RISC architecture Alpha to the MIPS architecture, which started in similar fashion aimed at the high-end performance environment, but diverged when MIPS processors found a market in the embedded space.

Living On

While it might not have lived up to expectations when it was breaking speed barriers, Alpha will live on in HP’s reported sales through 2006 and support through 2011. McCarron said the Alpha EV6 bus design actually established the design that is used in today’s Athlon XP processor from AMD.

Alpha also is credited by some with the development of the high-speed interconnect technology known as HyperTransport, used in AMD’s successful Opteron line of chips and the multithreading technology known as HyperThreading, used by Intel.

At HP World in Chicago this week, HP announced several improvements to server products, including AlphaServer systems with new, faster processors and price reductions.

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