Alpha: Riding in on a Tortoise
In February 2000, Compaq disclosed the first generation Alpha EV68, a hybrid 0.25/0.18 um device that ran in excess of 1.0 GHz. After an embarrassing false start that required the recall of an official SPEC submission, the EV68 only recently started to trickle to market at a conservative 833 MHz, a clock rate that once was on the road map of the 0.25 um EV67. This lethargic pace of product introduction has caused Alpha to slip to third place in the great SPEC horse race (behind the Pentium 4 and PA-8700 in SPECint_base2k, and behind the Itanium and Pentium 4 in SPECfp_base2k). The situation will brighten somewhat with the upcoming announcement of the EV68/1000 within a month or two. The EV68/1000 should leapfrog Alpha back into SPEC leadership. It is not clear if the 1 GHz product is based on the first generation EV68 device or one of the newer, “true 0.18 um”, second generation EV68 manufactured by IBM in a bulk CMOS process with copper interconnect.
At ISSCC 2001 the widely anticipated McKinley paper failed to appear but shortly afterwards Intel demonstrated first silicon of the chip. Compaq did the opposite. Two EV7 papers were presented, yet it was announced that the device had yet to even tape out. Despite assurances that the EV7’s “release to manufacturing” was imminent, industry rumors suggest that it didn’t finally tape out until April or May. If this latest delay is in fact true, it is hard not to conclude Intel’s second generation IA64 device will have at least a 6 months head start in the market place. Even that conclusion may be optimistic when you consider the enormously complex task of debugging and verifying a chip as highly integrated and ambitious as the EV7. The best news with regards to EV7 is that its high level of integration should ensure a relatively short interval between processor qualification and the availability of large-scale systems.
Despite the generally disappointing news on the technology front, Alpha’s commercial prospects have been looking much better recently. According to one market research firm, Compaq has recently taken third place (after IBM and Sun) away from HP in the Unix server market. Compaq has also apparently displaced SGI from leadership in the HPC (high performance computing i.e. supercomputer) market segment. Despite these positive developments, the shock waves from the arrival of Intel’s high volume business model to the 64-bit world will likely have a major effect on Alpha original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and resellers. For example, the $8k list price for HP’s new entry level i2000 Itanium workstation is close to the OEM retail price for an EV68/833 CPU daughter card equipped with 4 MB of cache. Cutthroat competition is a fact of life in the x86 processor world. It seems that 64 bit MPU vendors and associated businesses will now have to adapt to a similar environment.
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