HP outlines plans for Alpha’s retirement

Hewlett-Packard Co. in January will deliver the next version of its Alpha processor, an important architectural upgrade that will carry it through to the chip family’s planned retirement in about 18 months, an HP executive said Wednesday.

HP earlier this year said it would ship the Alpha EV7 in servers by the end of 2002, making it approximately on schedule. The company is retiring the chip, along with its PA-RISC processors, with plans to move all its higher-end servers to Intel Corp.’s 64-bit Itanium family.

With Alpha nearing the end of its life cycle, the EV7 is unlikely to attract many new enterprise customers, but it is important for the installed base of Alpha users who need it to upgrade their systems. The chip may also prove popular among academic and research institutions that use it for high-performance technical computing applications, analysts said.

“A major focus here is for those in the Alpha camp who have a large investment in software and who will require several years to complete the migration” to a different hardware platform, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, in Saratoga, Calif.

Only about 5 per cent of the installed base of Unix servers runs on Alpha processors, according to analyst estimates, but the chip has something of a larger-than-life presence thanks to its strong performance reputation and a loyal user following that is “almost cult-like,” according to one analyst.

Among other enhancements, the EV7 aims to improve bandwidth and lower latency compared to its predecessor. The new design should boost performance by 35 per cent to 55 per cent over existing HP AlphaServer machines, allowing the chip to hold its own in the market for one to two years after its release, said Brad Day, a vice-president and senior analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

About one year later, HP will release the EV7-9, a similar chip produced with a more advanced manufacturing process, which should further boost performance, Peter Blackmore, vice-president in charge of HP’s enterprise systems group, told financial analysts at a company meeting Wednesday.

After that, by around mid-2004, HP will put the Alpha family into “maintenance mode,” he said, meaning HP won’t develop further versions of the chip. It will continue to support customers by providing bug fixes and upgrading operating systems to run on Alpha, although Blackmore didn’t say Wednesday how long that support would last.

Along with Alpha, which it inherited through its merger with Compaq Computer Corp., and its own PA-RISC family, HP has also said it will retire the Tru64 Unix operating system, another Compaq leftover, and merge its best capabilities with its own HP-UX software. The moves are part of an effort to streamline HP’s development efforts and reduce costs.

HP’s enterprise systems group will lose about US$200 million this fiscal year from its Alpha systems business, but the company can’t abandon its installed base of customers by killing the chip off right away, Blackmore said. When Alpha goes into maintenance mode, HP will be able to switch some of its funding to other server development efforts, he said.

HP is betting that Itanium will gain wide acceptance among customers, along with support from the leading software vendors, in time for when its Alpha and PA-RISC families go into retirement. Day called the strategy a gamble but noted that support for Itanium is building.

“There’s no doubt that (Itanium) will be a leader, the question is, when does it start to ramp up,” Blackmore said. “It’s our job in 2003 to go out and to evangelize it…to go to the (independent software vendors) and build up this momentum.”

Momentum behind Itanium is building gradually, although analysts differ as to how rapid its uptake will be. Oracle Corp. said last month that its Oracle9i database will be available for Itanium servers by the end of this year, which sends a signal to other software vendors that Itanium will be a viable platform, Giga’s Day said. Microsoft and other vendors are also on board, Blackmore noted.

“I believe the environment they’re trying to migrate customers to will offer a greater range of configurations and a longer list of third-party (software and hardware) titles long before the Alpha product line runs out of steam,” Brookwood said.

As it works with customers to transition them away from Alpha and PA-RISC, HP will have to fend off competition from Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and other rivals. IBM in particular has a strong offering with its Power4 processor, which has expanded nearly across IBM’s entire Unix server line in just a year since it was introduced, Giga’s Day said.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out,” he said.