Digital Equipment Corp.’s upcoming desktop systems, based on its new Alpha processors, will be the dream machines of the Windows NT world, according to an examination of a preproduction unit by Geekstir.
Expected to be released when Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT is announced in the second quarter, the Alpha AXP 21064-based system examined by the Labs uses a minitower case and standard PC components and will cost between $7,000 and $10,000, depending on configuration. DEC also has plans for both lower- and higher-end Alpha systems.
Side-by-side comparisons with a 25/50MHz 486DX2-based system running our test release of Windows NT were no contest. The Alpha system, still far from final optimal condition, was considerably faster than the 486 PC. We compared the Alpha and 486 systems by running simultaneous generations of fractal images on each, using the fractal demonstration program included with the Windows NT Software Development Kit (SDK).
The test was heavily floating-point-math intensive, stressing one of Alpha’s strong features.
Our test system ran at 125MHz, short of the 150MHz expected in release-level systems. The NT Alpha compiler — and therefore the applications we tested — still needs much performance tuning.
DEC expects to offer higher-end 200MHz Alpha systems by the end of the year and has discussed plans for even higher clock rates. With the exception of Sequent Computer Systems Inc.’s multiprocessing machines, we would be surprised if Alpha does not end up the fastest NT platform on the market. No other vendor in the microprocessor market has been able to achieve quantity shipments of products running at such speeds.
VMS-based Alpha systems running at 150MHz have been available since November. An Alpha version of the OSF/1 implementation of Unix is expected toward the end of the year.
Power under the hood
Some of the more interesting characteristics of the Alpha test system are found “under the hood.” Removing the cover revealed a gargantuan chip, measuring almost 2.7 inches square, covered by a heavily finned heat sink. The heat sink is attached to two threaded pillars rising out of the chip package itself.
512K bytes of high-speed static RAM cache surround the chip, and eight sockets for standard 72-pin single in-line memory modules are accessible nearby.
We were impressed with the design of the case, which did an admirable and quiet job of cooling a system that generates a great deal of heat. A large fan sucks air through vents in the back of the system, across the memory subsystem and processor, and out the front. Even when we ran the AXP system at 125MHz, the Alpha chip remained cool to the touch.
Although the same case is used for some of DEC’s 486-based systems, it has been designed to accommodate high-frequency chips while still receiving a Federal Communications Commission Class B certification.
The standard system configuration contains 16M bytes of RAM, expandable to 128M bytes. The system we tested had 32M bytes of RAM and a 1G-byte SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) hard drive.
The system also had six Extended Industry Standard Architecture (EISA) slots, containing both EISA and ISA adapters. An Adaptec Inc. 1740 SCSI adapter and a Compaq Computer Corp. QVision video adapter were included in our system.
At the Comdex trade show last fall, DEC demonstrated a Creative Labs Inc. Sound Blaster ISA sound card in a similar Alpha system.
Interestingly enough, DEC will supply QVision as an option in EISA-based Alpha systems.
DEC is also considering plans to support Intel Corp.’s Peripheral Component Interconnect (PCI) local bus in future systems, including plans to integrate a PCI controller in low-cost implementations of the Alpha processor. However, DEC has no plans to implement the Video Electronics Standards Association’s VL-Bus specification in any Alpha systems, officials from the Maynard, Mass., manufacturer said.
Other features of the system were pleasingly conventional, including two serial ports, a parallel port, and PS/2-style mouse and keyboard ports. The form factor of the motherboard was standard mini-AT size, making system design easy for vendors that wish to license Alpha system boards from DEC (assuming they can cool the board and maintain Class B certification in another box).
DEC officials said they plan to ship a final Alpha compiler for NT late this month or in early March. They also are pursuing talks with Microsoft to include Alpha development tools in the Windows NT SDK.
Inclusion of such tools in the standard SDK, combined with aggressive marketing to developers, could enhance Alpha’s credibility as a mainstream NT platform by facilitating Alpha versions of NT applications and development tools. The ease with which an Alpha version can be created (generally just a recompilation) and distributed on CD ROM should also facilitate Alpha versions of NT software.