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ACE in the hole?

Compaq Computer recently dropped out of the Advanced Computing Environment Consortium (ACE), claiming essentially that it could make do just fine with Intel’s P5, or 80586 chip, in its high-end PC servers and workstations. Compaq claimed that Intel was ahead of schedule on the 586 and that it would come in competitively-priced with the MIPS RISC chips that were to form the basis of ACE-compliant machines. Compaq’s move may significantly limit ACE’s chances in the competition against Sun’s Solaris operating system, Taligent’s Pink, and NeXT’s NeXTSTEP. I’m sure Hewlett-Packard has something in the works as well, but I haven’t heard any details recently. This may all sound like boring business-speak, but this action is actually important and rather intertwingled.

Compaq helped found the ACE consortium a little over a year ago along with DEC, Microsoft, MIPS, and The Santa Cruz Operation (SCO). Apart from Microsoft, the group was generally a bunch of runner-ups for one reason or another, and they viewed ACE as a way to advance the level of computing in a standard way that would leave IBM, Sun, and Apple out of the deal. Lots of other companies without the initiative, talent, money, or clout to compete with the biggies joined ACE in hopes that it would raise their fortunes as well. Membership now includes nearly 200 companies worldwide.

As with anything designed by committee, there were some questions about the choices of operating systems and hardware that would constitute an ACE-compliant machine. Last I checked, there were at least two operating systems, Windows NT and SCO Unix, and two hardware platforms, the MIPS R4000 and the Intel x86. That situation might have changed, but what has definitely changed is the make-up of some of the more prominent members. Several months ago, Silicon Graphics, an early member and manufacturer of high-end Unix-based graphics workstations, bought MIPS, the company that was to provide the R4000 RISC chip to the rest of the consortium. Sounds a little fishy to me, as it must have to the other ACE members…

The Silicon Graphics/MIPS deal may have been a little fishy, but then in late February, DEC introduced the 21064, the first in a series of fast 64-bit microprocessors in the same league as the MIPS R4000. It was silly to think that DEC had just dissolved all of its research and would depend on the MIPS chip just because it was a member of ACE, and in fact, DEC seems pretty proud of the 21064 and its Alpha open computing architecture. DEC claims that it has even licensed the 21064 to Cray and other supercomputer companies for use in massively parallel machines (for those of you who don’t know what parallel computing is, just think lots of little processors, relatively speaking, all working together very fast). If that wasn’t enough anti-ACE news from DEC, the company announced recently that it would be working with Microsoft to set up DEC’s Alpha architecture and Microsoft’s Windows NT as the chief RISC-based computing system. So it seems that DEC has little use for the rest of the ACE consortium, and Microsoft, seeing an opportunity (perhaps Bill Gates’s greatest strength) has jumped on the Alpha bandwagon.

So it’s not looking good for ACE. The final blow to report is that apparently SCO has withdrawn from the ACE executive board, although it is still remaining a member of the group. SCO also stopped working on a version of its implementation of Unix for the MIPS R4000. I almost wonder if all the major players in the ACE group realized that design by committee is a politically sensitive but otherwise inefficient method of working. It’s also possible that there were some serious corporate egos running into each other at the meetings – I don’t know because I wasn’t there, but to judge from some of what I’ve read about the industry in Robert X. Cringely’s excellent "Accidental Empires" and numerous other places, corporate ego is a significant factor in much of this posturing.

Overall, I’m still unimpressed with the concept of ACE and will not be sorry if it disappears officially. There was too much effort involved with trying to please everyone and not enough realization that people don’t really give a hoot what processor their computer has or what operating system it runs so long as it does what they want.

Information from:
DECNEWS — 02-Mar-92

Related articles:
Communications Week — 04-May-92, #401, pg. 8

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