Compaq ushers in AlphaServers

As sparks flew this week between IBM Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. in the RISC-based server market, Compaq Computer Corp. quietly began letting potential customers of its future RISC-based EV7 AlphaServers kick the tires of the yet-to-be released systems.

The new AlphaServers are powered by Compaq’s next-generation EV7 processors, which are expected to ship in eight-way AlphaServers by the end of 2002. AlphaServers designed for 64-way EV7 configurations will follow shortly after that, according to Compaq.

Similar to the modular design of Sun’s Enterprise 12000 server which launched Tuesday, Compaq’s EV7 AlphaServers are built using a modular architecture that lets users add, subtract, and re-deploy computer components such as CPUs and memory. Self-diagnostic and self-correcting technology within the new AlphaServers reduce the user intervention required to stave off potential system down-time. The self-healing technology also better positions Compaq to compete against IBM’s eLiza self-healing technology, which ships in all IBM Unix servers.

Preview models of Compaq’s EV7 AlphaServers have been moving into the hands of test customers such as the Cerner Corporation, the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, the French Atomic Commission/Military Applications Department, and Deutsche Boerse Systems, according to representatives for the Houston-based computer maker.

Compaq AlphaServers are designed for high-end compute environments and compete in a market that has rapidly been consolidated into four major players, being Compaq, IBM, Sun, and Hewlett-Packard (HP), according to Ashok Kumar, an industry analyst at U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray, in Menlo Park, Calif.

But only two of those players, IBM and Sun, will continue to offer RISC-based Unix servers after 2005. Before then, Compaq and HP will each transition their RISC-based server platforms to Intel chips.

For Compaq, the EV7 chips are next-to-last in a line of RISC-based EV-series processors.

Compaq will battle it out with Sun, IBM, and HP for Unix server market share using EV7-based servers until the late 2003 time frame. After that, Compaq will transition its OpenVMS and True64 operating systems to Intel’s 64-bit Itanium chip line. Compaq will support its legacy RISC customers indefinitely, and OS transitions to Itanium should be seamless, but around 2003 the Alpha road map will morph to Itanium, as EV-8 chips will be designed by an Intel team, according to Compaq.

HP, which once had a singular hold on the Unix server market before relinquishing it to Sun in the late 1990s, will keep its eye on the Unix prize with two more generations of RISC chips, introducing series 8800 in the 2003 time frame, and series 8900, HP’s last RISC chip 12 to 18 months later. Sometime before 2004, HP’s transition to Intel’s Itanium line will reach critical mass, and the company will unify its operating systems, which already run on Itanium, onto the Intel platform.

Transitions in vendors technology road maps such as Compaq’s and HP’s move to Intel’s Itanium chips, and the potential obsolescence of systems created by actions such as this week’s deployment of high-end features onto lower-priced systems from both IBM and Sun mean IT buyers and CTOs should stay keenly aware of their vendor’s product plans, said Brad Day, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group in Cambridge, Mass.

“IT organizations just have to be much more cognizant of vendor road maps,” Day said. “They need to make sure that that vendor offers very good trade up protection so that when the technology changes they will get a rebate and will not be in anyway disadvantaged by the technology change in a server product road map.”

As the pack stands now, Sun remains the No. 1 Unix server vendor in the world with a 28.8 per cent market share, followed closely by HP with its 28.5 per cent share, then IBM which holds a 20.9 per cent market share, and Compaq with its 7.5 per cent share of the Unix server market, according to recent figures from IDC, in Framingham, Mass.