A beautiful design is not enough to win a competition, much like a well-written book won’t become a bestseller on its own. Success is dictated by luck and timing, as well as alliances. Alpha systems from DEC still sparkle as the best RISC designs of their time.
That time is the 1990s, an era RISC counts as its earliest days. HP launched its PA-RISC computers at the start of the decade, for all practical purposes. The Alpha workstations took the stage in 1992. Digital futures looked bright. The rest of the decade mapped a fall of the vendor.
Designs sometimes fly higher than the vendor creating them. Out on the StackExchange Retrocomputing boards, one Alpha fan tells of his weeks-long quest to buy an Alphastation.
“I spent weeks calling different people at DEC,” says Jerry Coffin, “and an almost bewildering number of VARs and VADs. On essentially every call, I was very clear about exactly what I wanted. Assuming my purchase worked out, my boss and his boss were both probably going to buy similar machines soon.”
“I had the money. I had permission to spend it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get DEC to take the money.”
By the end of the 1990s, Digital became a part of Compaq, a company driven by Intel designs. That’s one level of submersion. The next level arrives in 2002, when HP purchases Compaq. HP already has a RISC design, one that it’s carrying into a new generation. Alpha is behind x86 and PA-RISC from the moment it hits the HP pricing list.
Out on the Retro board, the story becomes a chronicle of the early design wins for Alpha. “Alpha systems had more of everything, even compared to competing workstations and servers,” Steven Kitt writes. Higher clock rates, as well as support for the first motherboard-sized memory boards with a full gigabyte RAM. ” For some time, the fastest computers for running Windows NT x86 binaries were Alpha workstations.”
It’s no mystery why Alphastations became system hosts in that era. Honoring superior design is what system virtualization does well. Preserving Alpha advantages makes as much sense now as in the last era of innovation.