My Next Pentium Is A DEC Alpha

Is a DEC Alpha a solution if you want a really fast Linux system? Here is one person's experience that may help you decide.

With the propagation of Linux onto non-Intel platforms, we are no longer tied to PCs for running our favorite *nix. I have been getting very leery of the “Pentium per 6 months” phenomena we've been seeing the last couple of years (i.e., whatever you buy is obsolete before you get it home). Each provides incremental enhancements, but nothing to get too excited about.

My goals were to find a new machine that could run Windows NT well, and provide me with an interesting platform for Linux work. (Well, someone has to study the enemy!) Limited to Pentiums, running NT on anything less than 133 MHz would not cut it. Frankly, I'm not expecting anything fun from the Pentium family until the HP/Intel PA-Risc merger chip is released (the forthcoming P7). So, it was off to other directions. A quick market survey indicated that DEC Alphas met my requirements, are competitively priced, and deliver good performance.

I settled on the DEC Universal Desktop Box (UDB), a.k.a. the Multia. This is a fairly compact (2.8x12.5x12.5 in) package which includes a 166- or 233-MHz Alpha, 24MB memory (expandable to 128MB), 256KB cache, Ethernet, floppy, two serial, one parallel, SCSI-2, sound and video components. The 166-MHz unit comes with an internal 340MB hard disk, or else a 520MB unit. Expansion is possible through a PCI card slot and two PCMCIA slots. The video chip supports multisync monitors from 640x480 to 1280x1024, 60 Hz to 75 Hz refresh rates; and the sound card is a clone of the Microsoft Sound system.

Extra Goodies

I found that the internal hard disk was too small. Removing it, however, was out of the question. Digital put in a 2.5" form-factor drive, a size popular in laptops, but which are generally IDE drives. I could force a 3.5" SCSI-2 drive in, but who would want the drive I removed? It's not too bad. I use the internal drive for boot partitions and swap space, and an external 1GB disk and a CD-ROM drive.

The Multia comes with a three-button PS/2 mouse, but no keyboard. You can obtain UDBs that support PS/2- or PC/AT-style keyboard connectors. Choose a keyboard type and a standard Multi-Sync monitor, and you are ready to run.

Alpha motherboards have PCI adaptors. Therefore you have a ready supply of PC-compatible adaptor cards that can be used with the Multia. For example, there are drivers for joystick adaptors. Even though the UDB comes with most of the features you would want anyway, there's no reason why you could not install a different video card, ISDN controller, etc., as drivers become available.

What makes the UDB special is the lack of frills. Digital, in an effort to keep the price down, markets the machine without software or licenses, and only about three pages of “documentation”--a pictorial essay on how to connect external devices to the connectors, how to open the case and insert RAM, a pointer to Linux on Alpha homepage (www.azstartnet.com/~axplinux) and information on how to join the declinux mailing list.

Thanks for the Confusion

Digital decided that they rather liked the “Multia” name. The name therefore refers to both the Alpha version I am describing to you, as well as an Intel Pentium version. The boxes look very similar, and target the same market. I have not seen documentation that refers to the Intel Multia as a UDB, whereas the names are interchangeable for the Alpha version. Windows NT refers to the unit as a “Multia”, and the Linux FAQ prefers “UDB”. So take your pick, but be sure the DEC person knows which one you mean.

Quick Introduction to Alpha Linux

This machine seems perfect for Linux and Windows NT. In fact, DEC, seeing a market for a low-cost *nix, participated in developing the port with Linus and the Internet community. The result is a 64-bit Unix that is binary-compatible with statically-linked DEC Unix (formerly OSF-1) applications. So, the availability of commercial software is not too big an issue. If you need a program like Netscape or WordPerfect, get the DEC Unix version. If it is statically linked, it should run with no problems.

Alpha Linux is interesting in that one of the main repositories of platform-specific code is kept on gatekeeper.dec.com. [See “Porting Linux to the DEC Alpha”, by Jim Paradis, in LJ #19—ED] Equally interesting is the fact that a lot of the platform-specific code is written (and source shared by) DEC engineers.

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