Enterprise Servers: HP's Alpha Division

By Kim S. Nash  |  Posted 2002-06-17 Print this article Print

Dossier: It was Digital Equipment Corp.'s baby, which went through midlife at Compaq and now will die at Hewlett-Packard. Such is the life of the proprietary Alpha chip, the engine inside the powerful and ultra-reliable AlphaServer computers.

The Omega of Alpha

It was Digital Equipment Corp.'s baby, which went through midlife at Compaq and now will die at Hewlett-Packard. Such is the life of the proprietary Alpha chip, the engine inside the powerful and ultra-reliable AlphaServer computers.

Big investment banks, science labs, manufacturers—including U.S. Steel—and military sites especially like AlphaServers because they hardly crash. Southeastern Freight Lines, a $500 million trucking company, has seen its eight AlphaServers fail no more than twice in a given year for as long as Dave Robinson, head of information systems, can remember.

AlphaServers can run three operating systems: Linux; Compaq's Tru64 Unix; or OpenVMS from Digital, which Compaq bought in 1998. OpenVMS, in particular, sparks passion.

"That particular operating system and the Alpha architecture is far and away one of the best computing platforms you can put your mission-critical systems on today," says John Barr, lead technical systems architect at Memorial Hermann Healthcare System, a $3.3 billion hospital network in Houston.

But come 2006, you won't be able to buy a new AlphaServer that uses the Alpha chip. The new HP, when it took over Compaq last month, said it will stick to Compaq's stated plan to kill the Alpha chip and migrate AlphaServers to Intel's forthcoming Itanium processor.

Moving AlphaServers to Intel's dominant chip line is smart because they will then be able to communicate and trade data more easily with many other kinds of computers, says Jim Gursha, president of High Performance System Solutions, an Alpha consultant for major financial institutions in New York.

Still, customers need not drop their proprietary Alpha systems immediately.

HP promises to provide technical support for Alpha-based systems through 2011.

Customers say that what Compaq did best for Alpha was to leave it alone after buying Digital Equipment. Digital engineers continued to build the Alpha line free of pressure to remake it into a PC-like commodity product.

Yet soon after that acquisition, Eastman Chemical started replacing its 300 AlphaServers with servers running Microsoft's Windows NT. "It seemed pretty clear to us that the Alpha platform ... had a very limited future," says Jerry Hale, vice president of information services at the $5.4 billion company.

Hale expects to turn off his last Alpha in 2005. It will be sad, he says, "but we have to move on."

Company Information

Hewlett-Packard's Alpha Division
20555 State Highway 249, Houston, TX 77070
(281) 370-0670

Ticker: HPQ
Exchange: NYSE
Employees: Compaq: 63,100; HP: 86,200

CEO, Chairman
Joined HP in July 1999 after 20 years at AT&T and Lucent Technologies. Has an M.B.A. from the University of Maryland and an M.S. from M.I.T.

Joined Compaq in 1998 as CIO; named CEO in July 1999, chairman September 2000. Previously with Oracle and SAP.

Executive VP, Enterprise Systems Group
An 11-year Compaq veteran, oversees development, manufacturing and customer relations for enterprise products, including Alpha systems.

Senior Manager, Business Critical Systems
Has been at HP for 27 years. One of the original engineers of HP's proprietary 3000 and 9000 servers.

VP and General Manager, High Performance Systems Division.

Various AlphaServer hardware models with up to 32 processors, AlphaServer SC supercomputer, OpenVMS operating system, Tru64 Unix operating system.

Reference Checks

Eastman Chemical
Jerry Hale
Chief Information Officer
(423) 229-2611
Project: Three hundred AlphaServers handle all aspects of factory and office operations at the $5.4 billion chemical company, one of AlphaServer's early adopters. Replacing all AlphaServers with computers running Microsoft's Windows NT.

Southeastern Freight Lines
Dave Robinson
VP, Management Information Systems
(803) 794-7300
Project: Runs truck-tracking, accounting and other systems on AlphaServers. Plans to migrate to AlphaServers based on Intel chips.

Memorial Hermann Healthcare System
John Barr
Lead Technical Systems Architect
Project: This 11-hospital network runs clinical applications on AlphaServers. Plans to move to new Intel-based AlphaServers.

High Performance System Solutions
Jim Gursha
(212) 831-0291
Project: A long-time AlphaServer consultant to large financial and investment companies.

Pioneer- Standard Electronics
Jim Sage
Chief Information Officer
(440) 720-8580
Project: Using AlphaServers since 1996. Currently has 13 servers that handle order processing, financial applications and a data warehouse.

Arrow Tru-Line
Rick Hallett
Information Technology Manager
(419) 446-2785
Project: The steel-door manufacturer runs all major systems, including financial, billing, inventory and order processing, on an AlphaServer.

The executives listed here are all Hewlett-Packard Alpha Division customers. Their willingness to talk has been confirmed by Baseline.

Senior Writer
Kim has covered the business of technology for 14 years, doing investigative work and writing about legal issues in the industry, including Microsoft Corp.'s antitrust trial. She has won numerous awards and has a B.S. degree in journalism from Boston University.

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