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foreword - Volume 4 Number 4

CURRENT ISSUE - Volume 4 Number 4 Robert M. Supnik,
Corporate Consultant, Vice-President,
Technical Director, Engineering

It all started with eight people in a conference room. [1]

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.[2] In the summer of 1990, it transitioned to product development.

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 story.

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."

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