DEC Alpha Workstation

The Good,....

We purchased a DEC Alpha workstation in December, 1995. The entry level 64-bit machine ran several times faster than 32-bit PCs shipping at the time, plus DEC had a real-time kernel and compiler as part of the package. The machine was code compatible with the fastest single chip workstations at the time. Even IBM were caught off-guard.

There were VME bus boards (100 MHz, 233 MHz and others) bundled with WindRiver’s VxWorks development licence (using the DEC compiler and debuggers). There were no DEC VME boards to examine in South Africa, but we did see them at CeBIT in Hannover about a year later. There were no takers for such fast automation systems where we lived, but the toolroom software was ported to it. We used the system for three years and then sold it to a pharmaceutical company as backup for their warehousing computers. Before joining Rockwell Automation, the Hillside Smelter used Allen-Bradley PLCs and apparently several DEC Alpha systems. ISCOR (South African Steel producer) also used Alphas, so we thought there would be a potential market, but the software was all imported.

The Alpha workstation was our best purchase that was so far ahead of the competition at the time. Years later the Apple G5 and servers would also delight at a much lower price tag (but not much faster than PCs in the wild).

Software developers received a 50% discount on the Alpha workstation, yet it was still the price of half a C180 Mercedes Benz. (For the calibration service, easily a small family car or a couple of washing machines). It did, however, pay the rent for some time.

There are many architectural papers and simulators for the Alpha. See our Trace and Profile Survey (PDF) 684 kBytes for some of the leading trace work by the late Anita Borg, and SimpleScalar by Todd Austin, Doug Burger and Guri Sohi.

The historical exchange rate on 14 Dec, 1995 was R3.668:US$, so the workstation cost US$13,780.36. The memory was R9643.26 or US$2,629.02. The extra 32MBytes gave a total memory of 64MBytes. The total was US$16,409.38 which included 14% VAT.

DEC Invoice
DEC Memory Invoice

the Bad,....

The drive installation on a Sun workstation (also SCSI) came with plenty of documentation, whereas DEC would provide nothing. We found DEC hard drives rather expensive so we bought a 1 GByte Quantum SCSI drive, and pioneered ourselves for partition tables and superblock addresses. (Not that hard as we were computer dealers and sold at least 20 Linux or Unix systems into various tool rooms and factories after loading up the software—and at least fifty PC systems without any operating system). We also previously installed an additional shoebox sized 1 GByte drive on a SPARCstation at Delta Motor corporation for about R20,000 (about a million times better price performance some years later, but cheap at the time).

We doubled the disk space at 25% of DEC’s price! We would do the same for motor manufacturers with HP workstations—except we would also install Kingston memory at half HP’s price and also make 100% ourselves for taking the risk. DEC memory was unavailable from third party suppliers when we bought our workstation.

Looking at our invoice, we paid rather dearly for the software (Unix, libraries, compilers). More than half our previous SPARC station.

and the Ugly.

That US$16,409 hurt for the DEC Alpha, but not as much as Altium CAD (R97,000 + upgrades + maintenance for close to R120,000) which has zero resale value and does not run without getting back into support for about A$1500. Another bedtime story ...,.

We did get back the 14% VAT for the DEC, plus working in front of a screen eight hours a day made the large 21” monitor an eye saver. Corporates that we served would hurt their employees with 15” flickering versions. Their CAD departments did fare much better and had decent screens.

After being acquired by Oracle, we cannot find documentation on old Sun Microelectronics components when adding this content into the SPARC pages. Rising to the top of the computer dung heap helps companies turn their backs on prior policies, however, when they take a hit, it is very sudden. Although Oracle believes in SPARC, the swarms of ARM servers that will ship for front-end webservers may hurt their sales. SPARC sales were not good before, which is why were acquired. Thank goodness we don’t have to chase that technology anymore.


It was rather disappointing to see how the Alpha architecture would disappear as those who swallowed them up all ended up choking (Compaq, HP...). For the Alpha architecture to have disappeared, management indeed did execute poorly. Those who believed Intel’s delivery dates and performance extrapolation for Itanium abandoned their own RISC architectures; they followed the Pied Piper along the x86 path. DEC, SGI, HP, Compaq, Sun, IBM — and others still thought they could squeeze OEMs forever while gouging out their customers’ eyeballs. People who had not signed corporate contracts in blood simply bought the same stuff from Taiwan, Korea, Japan and later China—saving their shareholders billions of dollars. Markups seem to be holding up in Australia (perhaps in your country as well, but certainly not in South Africa).

HP proposing their PA-RISC as a viable architecture and then turning against the clones, or Sun with Solbourne or the Taiwanese after courting their business. Not unlike DEC with second source agreements and everyone backing off after their bad behaviour. They all shot themselves in the foot, but in the process blew their brains out as their feet were in their mouths.

The bleeding edge is risky. Another crater left in the technology landscape. Although we managed to sell our workstations, others spent much more on higher-end units, and were unhappy when they had to migrate their CAD and artificial intelligence shells to other boxes. Some went with HP, who in turn would also pull the plug with their PA-RISC and later the Alpha via their Compaq acquisition. At least we wrote our software, and we managed to port it to other 64-bit machines. Remember the Transputer? They also caught us off guard.

Printer ink, well that is another bedtime story, my dears, and you’ll have to wait until tomorrow night—if you’re good.

Safety in numbers

Some fifteen years later, the Apple 64-bit x86 dual core Mini server would ship in the US for $999 (hits Australia at almost $400 more for some reason) with a TeraByte of storage — 1000× more than the Alpha base unit! 64 MBytes would be difficult to buy, as even a simple US$99 FPGA evaluation board would include a single chip 64Mb×16 DDR3-1333 chip.

The disk on the base Alpha unit was 1 GByte. SD cards the size of a postage stamp now have more capacity and speed some fifteen years later, costing only a couple of dollars. Disk drives are well over a TeraByte costing under $100.

We are sticking with the large swarms for a while—ARM and commodity x86-64 running Unix/ Mac OSX/ Linux, (or Windows for CAD where vendors are not risking Mac OSX or Linux platforms).

Wait a second, didn’t Apple drop their blade server line in 2011? Doesn’t end...