Alpha Architecture Makes Gains as a Military Platform

DEC's strategy makes the defense integration marketplace a springboard for its 64-bit Alpha workstation platform

As the computer industry's top brass helped boost their products last week at the annual spring Comdex show in Chicago, Digital Equipment Corp. chief executive Bob Palmer headed for the nation's capital to meet with another cluster of government customers.

The Washington visit, now a bi-monthly ritual of Palmer's, is part of a larger DEC strategy designed to make the defense integration marketplace a springboard for the company's 64-bit Alpha workstation platform.

So far, Palmer's scheme appears to be working. A string of multimillion-dollar contract awards by the Air Force and Army indicate the developer's 64-bit Alpha architecture is gaining ground.

What's more, a unique relationship with Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., is now expected to entrench the vendor even deeper inside the government market as the two team to win technology refresh contracts with DEC's array of Windows NT platforms.

DEC's recent scorecard is impressive. In May, the Maynard, Mass., computer maker, along with Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., nabbed the Army's first significant workstation program, a $594 million buy of UNIX and Windows NT-based computers, software and peripherals. The so-called Army Workstations I contract was a victory for DEC and HP over Sysorex Information Systems Inc., Axil Computer Concept Automation Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

A few weeks earlier, Hughes Data Systems was awarded a U.S. Air Force contract featuring DEC's 64-bit workstations in a procurement worth about $956 million.

James R. O'Neill, vice president and general manager of DEC's federal government region, is now working closely with the computer maker's chief executive to make Alpha an expansive government platform.

According to O'Neill, $300 million of DEC's total revenue, or 30 percent, comes from the Department of Defense. But the $16 billion commercial company is aiming to sell almost 300 million personal computers to the federal government in the next year.

"He's [Palmer] the only executive at his level to pick the federal government as his one account," said O'Neill, describing a plan where other members of DEC's senior management now plan bi-monthly visits with commercial customers.

"The government was the first customer to adopt the 64-bit technology, and they buy more Alpha turbo lasers than anybody," said O'Neill, who was formerly vice president for the Advanced Programs Group within DEC's Federal Government Region, focused on the intelligence community.

Besides making gains with its Alpha platform, DEC snared a coveted tech refresh contract earlier this month when McLean, Va.-based PRC Inc. selected the computer maker to be the exclusive supplier of Intel-based systems on the integrator's $2.9 billion Super Mini contract with the Defense Department.

All the DEC systems offered on the Super Mini contract will have Windows NT capability, an odd feature considering Microsoft's Windows NT operating system is not yet available on the contract. But both DEC and PRC are now preparing for a Windows NT groundswell, according to sources close to the contract.

"We've seen enormous numbers of government customers moving to NT," said Geoffrey Stilley, vice president for DEC's Personal Computer Business Unit Federal Division. "All but one or two of our engineers in the entire business unit are now NT certified," said Stilley, emphasizing DEC's commitment.

The partnership that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and DEC's Palmer announced last year identifies the 64-bit Alpha chip as the primary RISC platform for Windows NT. It also identifies the Microsoft-Digital partnership as the primary enterprise partnership. The two companies' technology is today cross-licensed, and Microsoft has made an investment in DEC to help the company train 1,500 engineers to be Microsoft-certified.

Besides riding the NT wave, DEC's DoD strategy involves targeting more task-oriented contracts. According to Lt. Col. Mary Fuller, product manager for the Army's Small Computer Program, the Workstations I contract supplies and configures off-the-shelf hardware and software for engineering and scientific users and other Army users who have intensive numeric and graphics applications.

Previously, the Army used NASA's Scientific and Engineering Workstation Procurement to purchase this kind of equipment. But NASA recently closed the program to other agencies. "The Army hasn't had a vehicle to buy workstations since we lost the ability to order off the SEWP," said Fuller. "We needed to get our own contract in place. But we see this as a rounding out of the family of contracts for the Army."

During the last two years, the Army's Small Computer Office has awarded PC-1, Portable I and Small Multiuser Computer II contracts. But Workstations I is the first of a new generation of commercial, off-the-shelf solutions, empowering DEC to set new standards for price and performance in an open computing environment, according to O'Neill.

The contract is interesting to industry observers because it enables users to choose between UNIX and Windows NT operating systems. "We see the technology making several applications available," said Mike Oates, program manager for DEC in Greenbelt, Md. "There will be telemedicine, HP imaging and training and simulation."

DEC expects the Army's logistics unit to standardize on the NT platform for administrative purposes, but will rely on Alpha for more advanced tasks. "It is a three-year, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract," said Oates. "It will start at the Intel level and work toward the highest level. The Army wants both NT and UNIX. And this will be the first vehicle to deploy them throughout the DoD, though [the Defense Information Systems Agency] is already using NT."

The contract starts June 22, and was a bit of a break from standard Army procurements for UNIX. The Army wanted alternate operating systems that could run on a standard configuration.

Sources say DEC priced its Alpha workstations aggressively for the contracts. Its low-end workstation, for example, is double the Army's requirements, with the high-end workstation touting 333 MHz of performance. The ability to run NT and UNIX was apparently crucial in winning the bid, sources say. The company relied very heavily on its channel partners: Applix Inc., Exabyte, Informix Software Inc. and Insoft. A new processor, the 64-bit 8000 RISC processor introduced in June by DEC will first be deployed through this contract.

More important for the future of DEC, perhaps, is the alliance with Microsoft. According to DEC executives, the company used to have a culture where the model was to develop one technology and keep it for five years without sharing it. There were no partnerships or alliances. There weren't any large, direct sales forces.

But now the company wants important relationships with a variety of companies. Oracle Corp. and Microsoft are most often the two that everyone talks about. So, the company's value proposition going forward is very clear. It depends not only upon DEC's technology leadership, but these partnerships to be successful.

The Pentium-based PC products on the Super Mini contract are the EnergyStar-compliant single Pentium processor Venturis FX 5100 and Celebris XL 5133, as well as the Prioris HX 5166 single processor and ZX 5133 dual processor servers.

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