Robert M. Supnik,
Corporate Consultant, Vice-President,
Technical Director, Engineering
It all started with eight people in a conference room. 
The time was the summer of 1988. Digital Equipment Corporation had just
closed the best fiscal year in its history, with record revenues and
profits. Digital's VAX systems were the most widely used timesharing
systems in the industry and were the "blue-ribbon standard" for mid-
range computing. Digital was the second-largest workstation vendor. The
company had just introduced the VAX 6000 system, its first expandable
multiprocessor, was developing a true VAX mainframe, and had decided on
a rapid thrust into RISC workstations to capitalize on that growing market.
What could possibly go wrong?
Nonetheless, senior managers and engineers saw trouble ahead. Workstations
had displaced VAX VMS from its original technical market. Networks of
personal computers were replacing timesharing. Application investment was
moving to standard, high-volume computers. Microprocessors had surpassed
the performance of traditional mid-range computers and were closing in on
mainframes. And advances in RISC technology threatened to aggravate all
of these trends. Accordingly, the Executive Committee asked Engineering
to develop a long-term strategy for keeping Digital's systems competitive.
Engineering convened a task force to study the problem.
The task force looked at a wide range of potential solutions, from the
application of advanced pipelining techniques in VAX systems to the
deployment of a new architecture. A basic constraint was that the proposed
solution had to provide strong compatibility with current products.
After several months of study, the team concluded that only a new RISC
architecture could meet the stated objective of long-term competitiveness,
and that only the existing VMS and UNIX environments could meet the stated
constraint of strong compatibility. Thus, the challenge posed by the task
force was to design the most competitive RISC systems that would run the
current software environments.
Key groups in Engineering responded to this challenge. A cross-functional
team from hardware and software defined the basic architecture. Advanced
development teams began work on the knotty engineering problems: in the
semiconductor group, the specification and design of a fast microprocessor,
and the automatic translation of executable binary images; in the operating
systems groups, on the porting of ULTRIX and of VMS (which was not
portable!); and in the compiler group, on superscalar code generation.
In the fall of 1989, Alpha became an officially sanctioned advanced
development program. In the summer of 1990, it transitioned to product
From the original core in semiconductors, operating systems, and compilers,
work expanded throughout Engineering. The server and workstation hardware
groups specified and started designing a family of systems, from desktop
to data center. The networks group began porting DECnet, TCP/IP, X.25,
LAT, and the many other networking products. The layered software group
inventoried the existing portfolio of products and prioritized the order
and importance of delivery. The research group pitched in by designing an
experimental multiprocessor as a software development testbed.
In parallel with the engineering work, marketing, sales, and service
teams worked closely with business partners and customers to shape the
deliverables and messages to meet external requirements. These teams
briefed key customers and partners early in the development process and
incorporated their advice into the development program. Ongoing partner and
customer advisory boards provided regular feedback on all aspects of the
program and helped shape two critical extensions of the original concept:
the open licensing of Alpha technology; and the porting of Windows NT.
Taken together, the scope of the Engineering effort, the need for
Marketing, Field, and Service involvement, and the high degree of customer
and business partner participation, posed unique management challenges.
Rather than organize a large scale hierarchical project, the company
chose to manage Alpha as a distributed program. A small program team
used enrollment management practices and strict operational discipline
to coordinate and inspect activities across the company. This networked
approach to management gave the program both flexibility and resiliency in
the face of rapidly changing business and organizational conditions.
The work of Engineering, Manufacturing, Marketing, Sales, and Service
came together in November 1992 with the announcement of the Alpha AXP
systems family: seven systems, three operating systems, six languages,
multiple networks, migration tools, open licensing of technology, hardware
and software partnerships, and more than 2000 committed applications.
Today, Alpha AXP embodies a fundamental repositioning of Digital Equipment
Corporation to be the technology and solutions leader in twenty-first
century computing: a company dedicated to meeting customers' needs with the
best computing, business, and service technology available. The delivery of
Alpha AXP required the largest engineering program in Digital's history,
spanning more than twenty Engineering groups worldwide. This issue of the
Digital Technical Journal documents just a few of the hundreds of projects
involved in bringing Alpha to fruition; future issues will continue the
1. The Corona Borealis conference room in the LTN1 facility in Littleton,
Mass. LTN1 was chosen because it was the geographic epicenter of the arc
of Digital engineering facilities on Massachusetts Route 495, the Corona
Borealis because it was the only conference room with windows.
2. After going through more than one name change. The original study team
was called the "RISCy VAX Task Force." The advanced development work was
labeled "EVAX." When the program was approved, the Executive Committee
demanded a neutral code name, hence "Alpha."