'Wildfire' finally getting started

Compaq Computer's long-delayed Wildfire enterprise Alpha server - originally due from Digital Equipment in mid-1998 - is finally close to shipping.

Compaq is planning a second-quarter launch of the 32-processor system, a company executive confirmed last week.

The first systems should become available in mid-May, with volume shipments expected in the second half of the year, according to a report that appeared in "Shannon Knows Compaq," a newsletter published by Terry C. Shannon in Ashland, Massachusetts.

The new servers mark Compaq's first major high-end hardware technology upgrade since its acquisition of Digital nearly two years ago. The servers are the first upgrades to Digital's 14-processor TurboLaser systems, which debuted in 1995.

Wildfire systems, initially based on 729-MHz Alpha chips, can run both OpenVMS and Unix applications.

Each 32-processor Wildfire system can be partitioned into smaller virtual systems, which will allow administrators to take the load off multiple smaller servers and consolidate it on one large Wildfire box. Clustering technology will let them tie multiple Wildfire systems into one giant configuration, for increased scalability and reliability.

Such features - when combined with the raw number-crunching capabilities of the Alpha chip - should put Wildfire systems among the performance leaders in the technical computing market, said Carl Ludwig, a senior vice president at BlueSky Studios in New York.

The computer animation studio used Alpha servers in creating an Oscar-winning film last year. "The idea of using multiple processors and applying it to large rendering applications is something that interests us," Ludwig said.

Wildfire's support for very large main memory is also crucial, said Marshall Peterson, director of infrastructure at Celera Genomics, a beta tester in Rockville, Maryland.

Celera, which uses Alpha servers for its gene sequencing work, recently placed an order for two Wildfire systems, after benchmarking them against systems from other vendors.

"Nothing came close to it. ... They exceeded our expectation by a wide margin," Peterson said.

Wildfire should finally give Compaq the ammunition it needs to compete in the enterprise market against IBM, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, said Joseph Pollizzi, deputy head of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

"Wildfire should stop them from being constantly compared to Dell instead of IBM," Pollizzi said. But he added that Compaq's success will largely depend on how the company markets the server.

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