By John D. Ruley
It was a bright, sunny day as I parked my faded blue RX-7 at a remote raceway in Monterey, Calif. I dug through a pile of old newspapers on the passenger seat and found some light reading material, just in case he wasn't here yet. After failing to talk my way through the Grand Prix gate with a press badge from last year's Comdex, I gave up and bought a ticket. As I headed for the spectator stands, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I knew who it was before I turned to greet him-my inside source on the NT team, the one I call "Deep Dark."
"What, no press badge?" Deep inquired.
"Nah, the security guard wouldn't buy it," I replied. "Why did you drag me out to this raceway?"
"You'll find out later," Deep said. Then his voice dropped. "C'mon, let's find a place to talk."
We went under the stands and sat on packing crates. Deep noticed the obscure magazine I was carrying and reached for it. "Alpha Visual FX?" he asked, clearly unfamiliar with the title.
"From what they say, it looks like Digital must be preparing a big push on the Alpha chip," I said.
Deep shook his head, frowned and handed the magazine back to me. "It won't work."
"Why not?" I asked. "It's not like Intel's got a total lock on the CPU business."
"You wouldn't know it from the sales figures, but Intel dominates all but maybe 5 percent of NT sales. And it's gonna go higher. Look at your own news stories," Deep said, pulling the September issue of WINDOWS Magazine out of his satchel. CNeTpower dropped the Mips RISC processor, and you guys broke the story about Deskstation hedging its Alpha bet by doing Intel."
"Well, the Mips chip has been in trouble for a while," I agreed. "Besides, NeTpower sold that business off to Tandem."
"Lot of good it'll do them," Deep quipped. "Even NEC is dropping Mips."
When I pointed out this only involved North America, Deep retorted, "That's where more than half of the NT business is. I'm telling you-RISC is a sinking ship! Look at Deskstation-that's been one of our few success stories with NT on RISC. You've quoted Peterson [Don Peterson, Deskstation's CEO] as saying that he's moving to Intel."
"Well, yes-in addition to doing multiprocessor Alpha," I said. "It's not as though he's dropping RISC completely!"
"You just watch," Deep said. "He can't afford to do parallel designs. If his Intel-based machines sell better than his Alpha-based ones, he'll toss Alpha out the door."
"You could be right about that," I admitted. "Still, Deskstation's not the only OEM using the Alpha."
Deep challenged me to name three. "Okay," I said, picking up my reading material and flipping through the ads. "Deskstation Technology, Carerra Computers and ..."
He waited expectantly as I struggled to name one more. "And BTG Technology Systems," I said.
"Right-and BTG was doing Intel even before Deskstation did. The fact is that Alpha has turned out to be a proprietary technology. Most people who buy a system get it directly from Digital."
"So what?" I countered. "As long as they can make a decent business out of it ..."
"The total number of systems they've shipped is under 200,000," Dark said. "That's not much of a market for software vendors-so there aren't many Win32 apps native to Alpha."
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I picked up my light reading material and turned a few pages. "What about FX!32?" I asked. "That's supposed to let Alpha run Win32 apps compiled for Intel."
"Did you actually read that article?" Deep asked. I conceded I had only given it a quick skim. Deep took the magazine from my hands and read between the lines.
"It's a software emulator," he began. "They promised it would deliver 70 percent of native performance, which would place a 300MHz Alpha on par with a 200MHz Pentium Pro-but FX!32 doesn't actually do that well yet. It currently delivers about 40 percent of native performance, so your 300MHz Alpha winds up acting like a Pentium 90. It also requires lots of memory and about 100MB of hard disk space."
"That doesn't sound so hot," I admitted.
"No kidding," Deep said. "The fact is, RISC never has made sense on a business desktop-or even for most servers. It's only practical when you have a special-purpose application that isn't crippled by a software emulator!"
"Then why does Cutler [Dave Cutler, the designer of Windows NT, known as "DaveC" around Microsoft] have a RISC machine on his desk?" I challenged.
"DaveC came from Digital's RISC division," Deep snapped back. "He spearheaded NT-RISC from day one. He has two RISC boxes in his office-a NeTpower and an NEC-but he also has a Compaq machine with six Pentium Pros in it."
"Six?" I asked in disbelief. "Geez, Deep-it must be nice to have an unlimited hardware budget ..."
"That's the point," Deep said. "If you don't have an unlimited budget, why are you fooling with RISC? It isn't cheaper than Intel. If you can do the same job with Intel hardware, there's no need to check out RISC!"
"Oh, c'mon," I said. "Digital is delivering systems that are twice as fast as anything with an Intel chip in it."
"That's just not true," Deep insisted. "Go look at the performance figures on both Intel's and Digital's Web sites. And while you're at it, take a look at Mips, too. That 2-to-1 performance advantage doesn't exist anymore!"
"Okay, I'll do that," I said. [Editor's note: John did-and you can see the results in the bar chart on this page.] "But what about the PowerPC?"
"Motorola, IBM and the PowerPC are a joke!" Deep snarled. "PowerPC's performance stinks. If they have a future-which I doubt-it's Copland."
"You mean Apple's long-delayed Mac OS upgrade?"
"The same," he nodded in agreement.
Just then, a roar resounded from the starting line. We couldn't hear ourselves talk anymore, and we emerged from beneath the stands to watch the race. Deep pulled a pair of binoculars from his satchel, handed them to me and leaned over to shout in my ear.
"Take a good look at the lead car," he ordered. I did-and was astonished to see the sponsors: Wall Data, Tandem and Microsoft. I was even more astonished to read the name of the car: "Windows NT Server." I turned to Deep with raised eyebrows.
"DaveC's driving that one," he yelled.
I recalled seeing a Formula race car at Microsoft during the Windows 95 launch 14 months ago. But I hadn't known the owner of it. "Cutler's racing?" I asked in astonishment.
"Yep. He decided the Porsche just wasn't fast enough." Deep thought for a moment. "Hey, you still got that old Rotary Rocket?"
I nodded, but frowned. RX-7 owners don't take kindly to people ragging them about their cars. Deep grinned. "It's a RISC-mobile! Theoretically better, but in practice they didn't sell."
That set me off-Mazda discontinued the RX-7 this year. As a loyal rotary-engine fan, I had to defend my car's honor, so I took a swing at Deep's grinning face. He ducked. When I looked up, he was gone.
Microsoft really did sponsor a pair of "Windows NT" Formula race cars this summer. As for my "light reading material," Alpha Visual FX is published quarterly by AMG Media, 1308 Orleans Drive, Sunnyvale, CA 94089 (408-743-9250). It's free to qualified U.S. applicants. Write AMG for information on overseas rates. -JDR
John D. Ruley is our occasionally hot-headed Editor-at-Large and resident NT booster. Contact John in the "Enterprise View" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's area on America Online and CompuServe. John Ruley's e-mail ID is: email@example.com