Compaq abandons Alpha, commits to Itanium

Compaq has announced that it will discontinue its own Alpha chip based server range, in order to concentrate on development of Itanium-based systems.

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By  Mark Sutton Published  June 28, 2001

Compaq has announced that it is to exit the chip design market, as it phases out its Alpha-based server range. The company will switch to Intel’s Itanium for its high-end servers, leaving just three main chip designs in competition.

The Alpha chip design will be phased out, after the delivery of a final generation of improvements. Processor technology tools and resources will be transferred to Intel, and the two companies have agreed to work together on engineering of new high-end computing technology. The first Itanium-based Intel machines will be part of the ProLiant range, due in the third quarter of this year, with the Alpha phased out by some point in 2003.

“Compaq has invested five years in our 64-bit industry-standard server technology, the first result of which will be our forthcoming Itanium-based ProLiant server,” said Hamid Hassan, enterprise business group manager, Compaq Gulf & Levant. “Now the industry is readying itself to enter the next stage of a multi-year transition that will bring the benefits of 64-bit to industry standard architectures.”

The move is seen as being more significant for Intel, IBM and Sun Microsystems than it is for Compaq. The Alpha-server was only ranking at a weak fourth place in the high-end server market, against Unix-based systems. Although the divestment of Alpha technology allows Compaq to focus on hardware development over expensive and complex chip development, Intel is seen as the real beneficiary. Not only is the move seen as a big vote of confidence in the Itanium architecture, but Intel will gain some much needed technology from the move, most notably compiler software. Compiler software allows developers to create applications that make full advantage of the chip features. Compaq has expertise in the area, and Intel needs compilers for Itanium as a matter of some urgency.

The only stumbling block for Intel is that Compaq’s engineering staff may not be as keen to join them as they would like. The move leaves just IBM and Sun backing the RISC architecture in the market, and many RISC engineers are vehemently opposed to Intel’s Itanium architecture. The pool of talent and expertise that will be released by Compaq, which they hope will go to Intel, represents an attractive target for its RISC rivals. “Chip designers will be naming their price,” said Brad Day, an analyst with the Giga Information Group.

The move also has implications for HP. Hewlett-Packard was seen as the preferred partner for Itanium with Intel, having taken the idea to Intel in the first place. While the addition to the Itanium camp will be welcome, the close relationship between Intel and Compaq will likely mean that HP is under more pressure to develop its own Itanium migration strategy.

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