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Appendix C. Installing Linux on Digital/ Compaq Alpha Systems

By Barrett G. Lyon, Lar Kaufman, and Richard Payne

In 1992, Digital introduced a 64-bit, superscaler, RISC-based architecture called the Alpha, winning impressive reviews in the industry for speed. Linux is an attractive alternative to the official operating systems shipped with the Alpha. But installation varies from system to system because the Alpha has evolved rapidly and has been shipped over the years with a wide variety of hardware and firmware (startup programs stored in ROM). This appendix is an introduction to the main issues and tasks in installing Linux, but you will also need to carefully read the documents for Linux installation and your hardware, and show a somewhat adventurous willingness to experiment.

A discussion of Alpha systems must cover years of hardware evolution from the older style UDB system to the current DS and AS series systems, as well as standard OEM configurations. Because there are so many different BIOS configurations and boot options, it's impossible to give detailed installation instructions for every type of Alpha system. We hope this discussion will be a guide to help users who are new to the Alpha architecture understand what to do when installing a new system.


This discussion does not cover VAX, MIPS, AMD, or Intel CPU-based systems or hardware that share peripheral and packaging technologies with Alpha-based systems. We will focus only on the installation of Linux on Alpha systems and components manufactured by Compaq or licensees of Alpha technology, such as Samsung Semiconductor USA or Mitsubishi Semiconductor.

C.1. Alpha History and Status

In 1992, Digital Equipment Corporation, also known as DEC or Digital, introduced the Alpha with support for seven hardware platforms, three operating systems, multiple networking protocols, and multiple language compilers.

The Alpha constitutes the largest engineering project ever undertaken by Digital, involving more than 30 engineering groups spread across 10 countries. It was not the first RISC-based semiconductor that Digital produced, but it was the first that Digital decided to sell in the open market. Digital Semiconductor (DS) was created as an internal business group to manufacture, sell, and distribute Digital's semiconductors on the merchant market.

To keep up with demand and evolving semiconductor manufacturing technology, Digital outsourced manufacturing of the Alpha semiconductor, which included agreements with Samsung Electronics and Mitsubishi Electric to manufacturer current and future implementations of the Alpha semiconductors. In addition, the agreements granted Samsung and Mitsubishi licenses to market, sell, and distribute Alpha semiconductors worldwide and included joint development projects related to the Alpha semiconductor family.

The relatively small installed base of Alpha systems and the fact that most existing systems are "development platforms" that allow tinkering and tuning supported by massive archives of hardware documentation have encouraged continued development of Alpha chipsets. However, it also makes it hard for Linux developers to gather the wide range of systems under one simple installation procedure.

Compaq had its eyes set on having its own enterprise server architecture and operating system--an alternative to Microsoft and Intel. On January 26, 1998, Digital and the Compaq Computer Corporation announced a $9.6 billion-dollar merger where Digital became a wholly owned subsidiary of Compaq. DS came with the multibillion dollar package, and the name Digital was absorbed into Compaq as a brand name.

To summarize, Alpha architecture is a superscaler, open-industry standard, 64-bit, RISC-based architecture that is engineered by Compaq and manufactured in volume by Samsung, Mitsubishi, and their subsidiaries.

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