Windows Magazine

9 /96 News: NT Vendors Reducing RISC

By John D. Ruley and Joseph C. Panettieri

    From its inception, one of the biggest strengths of Windows NT has been its portability. Written almost entirely in the processor-independent C language, the high-end operating system can easily be ported to everything from RISC to Intel; today, NT supports the Mips Micro-systems R4x00, the Digital Alpha AXP 21x64 and the Motorola Power PC 6xx processors, as well as Intel's Pentium and Pentium Pro. And at various times, developmental versions have also supported Intel's i860, the Fairchild/Intergraph Clipper and HP's PA-RISC.

    But there's trouble brewing in the RISC part of that market-so much so, in fact, that two of its earliest boosters are ready to fly the coop and head for Intel's warm embrace. Deskstation, which started with a Mips-based system (WINDOWS, June 1993) and later migrated to Digital's Alpha, has now decided to focus on multiprocessor systems; some may yet be RISC-based, bu t others will use Intel CPUs. NeTpower is going even further-its entire line of Mips-based systems is being dropped in favor of systems using Pentium Pro.

    "Pentium Pro caught up with RISC in perfor-mance for everything except floating point-that's still about 30 percent slower," NeTpower vice president Skip Stritter said recently. And even that just wasn't enough "to keep fighting the RISC vs. Intel wars."

    For his part, Deskstation CEO Don Peterson still prefers RISC, parti-cularly Digital's Alpha, to Intel's offerings. But he can't say the same about Digital. The demand for Alpha is "out there-we're seeing three times the demand this year vs. last year, and we had three times last year over the year before that," he noted. "But Digital is making it less and less attractive for us to expend R&D dollars on this. They seem to be putting land mines in our path, and I'm getting tired of trying to dodge 'em."

    In particular, he cited Digit al's deal with Samsung and its search for other low-cost partners, all of which suggests a volume strategy. And Digital's much-anticipated FX!32 software emulator, which is designed to allow Alpha-based systems to run unmodified Intel-based Windows 95 applications with near-native performance, has already generated much buzz but is unlikely to have much impact. In his view, Digital hasn't done nearly enough to port applications to the platform, which he says is critical.

    "Digital seems to be focusing resources on a lower-cost CPU with lower performance," he said. "Our customers don't want lower cost-if they did, they'd go to an Intel machine."

    Of course, Digital doesn't agree-at least, not completely. "I don't know that I'd characterize our direction as mass-market-that makes me think of $2,000 PCs," a spokesman responded. But he agreed that it is "fair" to describe the new strategy as a move from the workstation to the high-end PC.

    So where does that leave the prospect of NT on RISC? Dead, according to NeTpower, which will soon be all-Intel. But Deskstation apparently still holds out hope that Digital will come around. And Peterson has no illusions about switching sides. "I spent several years at AMD, so I look on Intel as a predatory competitor," he commented. "But I can't see any upside to Digital's strategy." And it would be great "to be first out the door with a P7 motherboard."

    The other options are even more remote. Both vendors agree that the Power PC architecture isn't in the running; NEC will stop selling Mips NT systems in the U.S. (they'll continue to be available in Japan), and Mips itself is focus-ing on Nintendo's 64-bit game, which uses the R5000 CPU.