Sun Microsystems Inc. is itching to fight Intel Corp. for the installed base of 64-bit Alpha microprocessor customers after Intel last week agreed to take over the technology from Compaq Computer Corp. "And we will win," boasted David Yen, Sun's vice president of processor products.
In fact, Yen claimed Sun was already picking up a steady stream of Alpha customers "that were worried about the future of the chip and wanted to migrate to a more stable architecture. The transition of Alpha customers to Sun will now only increase," he said in an interview last week with EBN.
Just as confident of capturing Alpha's user base is Intel, which claimed last week that the migration of Alpha technology to the newly released Intel Itanium processor family will bolster the company's expansion into the 64-bit server and performance workstation market. An Intel spokesman rejected Sun's claims that Alpha customers will migrate to its Solaris/UltraSparc architecture.
"Who would want to move to a more expensive proprietary architecture that is offered by only one company?" the spokesman asked.
Compaq, which acquired the Alpha architecture in 1998 as part of its purchase of Digital Equipment Corp., shed the technology last week in a restructuring that will see the Houston-based PC maker focus more heavily on software and services while using Intel's MPU platform.
Intel had owned the rights to the Alpha architecture, having bought DEC's Hudson, Mass., fab at about the time DEC sold its computer hardware business to Compaq. Though an Alpha license holder, Intel did little with the architecture and will now fold it into its own 64-bit processor technology roadmap.
However, Sun's Yen said the race for Alpha customers "is up for grabs." Yen said Sun hopes to repeat the success it had in attracting Hewlett-Packard Co. customers after HP phased out its PA-RISC processor line to partner with Intel on its Itanium program.
HP last year saw its Unix server shipments decline, according to research firm Dataquest Inc., San Jose, and Yen believes Sun was a significant factor in taking server sales away from the company.
Sun's server revenue grew 42% last year, to an estimated $10.3 billion, putting it second in the market behind IBM Corp., according to research firm IDC, Framingham, Mass.
Replenishing the talent pool
Perhaps as important as grabbing Alpha customers is the engineering windfall Intel will enjoy by landing the Compaq design team that worked on the 64-bit processor. The team will be shifted to Intel immediately, and will begin developing the interfaces for porting Alpha software to Intel's Itanium family.
Yen said Sun, Palo Alto, Calif., and the other 64-bit server processor chip makers, including Advanced Micro Devices, IBM, and MIPS Technologies, are racing to sign up Alpha engineers.
"One reason Intel was so eager to acquire the Alpha engineering team was to try to keep it from moving to Sun or AMD," he said.
The looming 64-bit shootout between the Intel Itanium family and Sun's UltraSparc processor line pits a host of Wintel OEMs against Sun's proprietary servers and workstations. A third contender is IBM, which continues to push its own 64-bit Unix RISC products as well as Intel's Itanium-based servers and workstations.
Coming on the scene next year will be AMD with its 64-bit Hammer series. However, AMD's initial Claw Hammer chip is targeted at the top-end desktop PC market, and only later will the chip maker unveil the 64-bit Sledge Hammer for servers and workstations.
Handicapping the field
Because many of the companies designing server processors are moving to next-generation chips, it's almost impossible to pick winners at this stage, according to analysts.
Intel's initial Itanium chip will be succeeded late next year by a quad-pumped IA-64 device code-named McKinley, although all of the chips in the company's 64-bit processor line will continue to carry the Itanium brand.
Compaq is near to releasing its long-awaited next-generation chip, the EV-7, and will continue to make Alpha EV-7 servers and workstations until 2004.
Sun, meanwhile, is developing a new UltraSparc-IV chip to succeed its current processor.
"As Intel consolidates Alpha into the IA-64 processor line, it will create a bigger market to motivate software developers to port their programs to the Intel platforms. But this isn't going to happen overnight," said Tony Massimini, an analyst at Semico Research Corp., Phoenix.
"Also, Alpha itself, as the new EV-7 processor, will be competing against IA-64 until 2004, when Compaq finally moves completely to Intel," he added.
Sun's Yen conceded that the shifting landscape could lead some customers to hold back on design-ins until the market takes shape. He noted, however, that Sun's UltraSparc migration won't require what he called the more radical hardware and software transition of Intel's IA-64/Alpha roadmap.
Even before Intel assumed control of the Alpha architecture, however, the company said the chip's IA-64 architecture, which is based on VLIW (very long instruction word), will offer superior floating-point comput-ing performance to RISC processors like Sun's. IA-64 will also be able to run the ubiquitous installed base of 32-bit X86 software.
Though the server market is fairly competitive, Intel's assimilation of an entire processor architecture conjured up images of its near monopoly in the PC MPU market. Unlike the antitrust issues Intel has had to confront in that market, few analysts expected the Alpha sale to present a problem.
"[Alpha's] eventual loss won't upset the market in any major way," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at MicroDesign Resources Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif. "Besides, Sun Microsystems remains as a formidable competitive force in the market, which lessens the impact of the Intel deal."
Thomas Kraemer, an analyst at Merrill Lynch Securities in New York, noted that in the server and workstation market, processor hardware isn't as critical a factor for success assoftware.
"It's unclear that the Intel agreement with Compaq really changes the server market and the balance between Intel, Sun, and IBM," Kraemer said.
"The results of the operating system war between [Sun] Solaris, Windows 2000, Linux, and other software will likely have more impact on the market." OR