A little bird has told me that IBM might soon throw its hat into the 64-bit ring by bringing copper technology to the Alpha development project.
It is an interesting idea. IBM, with its knowledge of copper, could take the Alpha to speeds that are way beyond anything achievable right now.
This will complicate an already complex situation even further.
Alpha is the 64-bit processor, developed by Digital and available since 1992, that runs VMS, Unix and NT. The chip is currently made under licence by Samsung, Mitsubishi and Intel, which bought Digital's Alpha fabrication plant in February. Compaq, of course, which has bought Digital, uses the chip in many of its servers.
Compaq is also a key Intel customer. So is IBM. So is Hewlett-Packard (HP) and, although it was in league with Intel on the development of the IA64 Merced processor, bringing to the party its PA-Risc architecture, HP now seems to have started showing a much keener interest in all things Alpha.
Intel has dominated the desktop market for the last few years and has been accused of being monopolistic in its behaviour - even by some of its best customers - from time to time. All the vendors would like an alternative supplier. In the desktop market, they have had to settle for AMD and Cyrix.
In the long term, HP and Sun's Risc processor lines are at best a specialist development. HP is going one way or the other and Sun is putting Solaris on IA64. IBM has had PowerPC, but with the alliance between Apple, Motorola and IBM in shreds, that is looking like a proprietary line.
Compaq's purchase of Digital and the Alpha development potentially puts it into direct conflict with Intel's future plans. Even though Intel makes Alphas, its position there has to be seen as a hedged bet. Digital was trying to sue Intel before all this happened, remember, for allegedly pinching some of its ideas. Intel made counter-claims, and it all looked very nasty until Compaq stepped in.
Where does this leave the channel? Intel chasing Alpha - owned by Compaq but made by Intel - and, critically, other powerful manufacturers; and now possibly by IBM as well. IBM, with its advanced copper production technology, may be able to speed up the development of the Alpha processor and send it zooming beyond 2GHz. If HP is involved, the threat could be serious for Intel. The key factor will be who gets to run 64-bit NT first and who runs it better. If NT is going to be the main applications server of the future, the platform of the future will be dictated by how well it runs that system. Microsoft will have to be evenhanded as it is under the close scrutiny of the US authorities.
If the Alpha speeds up and pulls ahead of IA64 is Intel going to refuse to supply Compaq, IBM and HP? These companies already use rival processors and with Cyrix up for grabs and the very fast AMD K7 on its way, Intel has to be careful.
Simon Meredith is a freelance IT journalist.
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