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October 18, 1998

HOW MERCED WILL AFFECT THE RISC COMPANIES

By CBR Staff Writer

Will Intel Corp’s IA-64 finish off RISC? Sun Microsystems Inc now stands alone in the computer industry as the only server vendor with no plans to implement it. Linley Gwennap, VP Microdesign Resources, gave his assessment of the various RISC players at the Microprocessor Forum this week. Silicon Graphics Inc and Hewlett- Packard Co have effectively thrown in the towel, and now face an awkward time, having committed to an architecture that currently doesn’t exist, while their old products fade. HP, at least, has plenty of headroom, but the MIPS architecture looks particularly weak. Both have, however, gained early access to Intel technology through making the decision now, with HP benefiting from influencing the architecture at an early stage. The PowerPC is suffering from the spilt between Motorola Inc and IBM Corp, with Motorola pursuing Apple and the high-end embedded market, and IBM using both the PowerPC and IA-64 in its servers – a potentially slippery slope if users start migrating from one to the other, leaving the RISC lines below the critical mass. Alpha, currently the fastest RISC by far, could be Merced’s toughest competitor once the 21364 EV7 ships at the end of 2000. The Tandem endorsement makes it seem that Compaq Computer Corp is committed to Alpha over the long-term, says Gwennap. But, like IBM, Compaq will be shipping both Alpha and Merced servers, and could get caught on the same slippery slope that IBM might slide down. Sun – the only holdout – has put all its wood behind a single arrowhead. That gives it a strong short-term message – no binary transition. But Sparc performance could lag in the longer term. Solaris on IA-64 could offer it a backup plan. Gwennap’s conclusion is that, with the huge weight of OEM support behind it, IA-64 will inevitably win up to 60% of the high-end market. Support would only dwindle if the performance of Merced and McKinley falls behind the leading RISCs, or if schedules continue to slip badly. But recent RISC delays are lowering the bar fo r Merced’s success. Even if IA-64 does dominate, both Sparc and PowerPC may have enough volume to persist in the computer market, predicts Gwennap. The Alpha, however, must continue to deliver significant performance advantages for Compaq to remain interested.

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