Worth Keeping: AlphaServer

When you’re trying to create a mathematical model of the universe – or even a small part of it– you need a lot of processing power.

It’s extreme number-crunching needs like these that have prompted several scientific institutions to purchase high power servers and employ them in a parallel processing mode that allows them to get the fastest, highest bandwidth computing possible.

And since its introduction by Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) in 1992, the AlphaServer has been the processor of choice for many such institutions. Although now earmarked for termination by Compaq Computer Corp. (which bought DEC in 1994), academic institutions like the physics department of Hamilton, Ontario’s McMaster University still find the AlphaServer indispensable for their work.

McMaster’s physics department creates numerical simulations of galaxies, clusters of galaxies and the other large-scale structures that make up the universe. “Because of the huge range of scales involved, you’re always trying to do the largest, highest-resolution simulation you can,” says Hugh Couchman, professor of physics at McMaster. “And so that’s naturally pushed a lot of numerical cosmologists into using parallel computation.”

At McMaster, Couchman and his colleagues use the AlphaServer in shared multi-processor (SMP) clusters of four machines, connected with a high-bandwidth, low-latency quadric switch. Connected in series of 112 or more processors, the computers calculate elements such as the gravitational forces found in galactic structures. “Each processor does a lot of communication with the other processors,” Couchman says. “Getting scaling that is that good from that kind of code is really very impressive and is a testament to the architecture of the machine.”

McMaster’s decision to purchase the AlphaServer was made just prior to Compaq’s announcement that it was transferring the technology to Intel’s Itanium processor by 2004.

Despite its technical worthiness, commercial considerations were paramount in Compaq’s decision to get out of the Alpha business. “In terms of the Alpha, it was always highly-regarded technically,” says Alan Freedman, storage and server research director for Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd. “However, it never sold in the volumes that Compaq or Digital had initially predicted.”

And for Compaq’s PC-centred business, the alpha did not always make the best fit. “It was a different method of sell than their PC brand – a different customer set, a different target group and frankly, a different way of selling, so it didn’t speak to Compaq’s strengths,” Freedman says.

The high research and development costs associated with sustaining a server product line was another factor, Freedman suggests.

A final factor in Compaq’s decision to sell the Alpha line may have been its loss of Windows NT support from Microsoft, leaving it supported only by one flavour of Unix. “They’re supporting essentially a proprietary platform,” says Galen Schreck, research analyst at Boston-based Forrester Research Inc. “So it’s more difficult to get people to provide software – it’s hard for them to keep that going up against the likes of Sun (Microsystems) and IBM.”

Despite Compaq’s decision to sell the Alpha technology to Intel, McMaster’s Couchman sees little hardship arising from the move. “Alpha is still a leader and we expect it will be,” Couchman says. “We’re going to get the next generation of Alpha – EV7 – anyway. I fully expect it to be a useful system for at least two or three years.”

Worth Keeping is ITBusiness.ca’s occasional glance at technology that has been upgraded, replaced or phased out but still has a valuable place within the user community. The technology may be out of date by industry standards, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

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