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The Alpha Micro Phun Machine @ Floodgap Retrobits

[debi (sondrestrom), a.k.a. ampm.floodgap.com, Floodgap's trusty Eagle 300. Click for its model page.] Welcome to ampm.floodgap.com, the Alpha Micro "Phun" Machine running at Floodgap Systems in Southern California, our hobbyist homage to the Alpha Microsystems series of multiuser servers, computers and terminals. This site is being served to you by a real, live Alpha Micro Eagle 300 running AMOS 2.3a and AlphaTCP! Since there is so little information on these fascinating machines out on the web, and even fewer active publicly accessible systems, this site seeks to be a repository for technical and operating information for the line of AMOS-based systems and a resource for their users and administrators.

I gratefully appreciate and acknowledge the help of Sellam Ismail, Michael Roach, Mike Noel, Steven Lawson, Jeff Kreider and Rod Hewitt for their contributions to this site, and in particular Bob Fowler for his generous donation of time, access to his documents archive, and software. Send me your comments and remembrances at ckaiser@floodgap.com. -- Cameron Kaiser

This site was last modified 28 May 2013: here's What's New.

What's debi's uptime?
If you don't believe that there's an Alpha Micro on the other side, perhaps you'll believe SYS:SYSTAT.LIT.
Are you getting rid of Alpha Micro equipment or peripherals? Please don't throw it away! E-mail me and let's see if we can give it a new home! Let me know your desired arrangements, and it goes without saying that I will gladly cover any shipping, time and inconvenience.

What is an Alpha Micro computer?

An Alpha Micro, in its most common form, is a customized Motorola 680x0 or x86-based computer running its specific operating system AMOS. Built as heavy-duty multi-terminal/multi-user application server systems, Alpha Micros were and are noted for their stability, outstanding serial throughput and wide variety of business and point-of-sale applications; myself, I've personally seen AMs in doctor and dentist offices, video stores, rental outlets (my Eagle came from a party rental store), churches (the Salvation Army in particular used them, which was my first experience with the line) and even on desktops in their less-common workstation form factors. Their functional longevity means that few escape to the wild, much less the hobbyist, simply because they're still out there doing useful work!

Although modern Alpha Micros are essentially customized commodity PCs and bear little hardware resemblance to their ancestors, they continue to offer backwards compatibility and high performance running the newest AMOS and a wide range of business-critical applications even today.

Whatever you do, however, just remember: it isn't a DEC Alpha!

Who is Alpha Micro?
What were their major systems?

[Original Alpha Micro logo, from AM-100 manual.] Alpha Microsystems, Inc. was founded in 1977 in Irvine, California by Robert Hitchcock and Richard Wilcox. Prior to Alpha Micro, Dick Wilcox was originally working for the Newport Mesa School District on DEC PDPs during the 1960s and in 1970 developed a small realtime operating system for CalTech's PDP-11 as a consultant. Part of Wilcox's agreement allowed him to take his work with him, eventually ending up at Western Digital who decided to use it for their Spartan 770 testing rig. Western Digital wanted multiple testers on-line, so they hired Wilcox away from the school district full-time to develop his realtime OS into a multiuser one as well, pairing him up with John Glade who had designed the Spartan. In his after hours time, Wilcox developed a separate chipset based on the WD-16, essentially a recoded LSI-11 chipset and thus often compared to the PDP-11, and converted his software to run on it. Greatly improving the microcode, Wilcox's chipset could even outperform all but the largest PDP-11s that he had previously coveted.

Despite its impressive performance, Western Digital did not believe there was much future in Wilcox's little project and allowed him to buy the chips and sell it himself; thus was Alpha Micro formed, with the help of investor Bob Hitchcock, to expand and capitalize upon Wilcox's design. Developing in Wilcox's garage with Glade and fellow engineers Rich Notari and John French, the engineers turned Wilcox's original five-chip set into the S-100 based AM-100, a two-card CPU that could then be connected to any variety of S-100 cards with an initial addressing limit of 64K, expandable in 16K banks later. To drive their hardware, Wilcox took his previous operating system project and turned it into AMOS, with its strong DEC influence intact. For user applications, Alpha Microsystems wrote their own BASIC compiler and included it with the operating system, with assembly-written native applications also supported. (The similarities with DEC's operating systems, particularly RSX-11, were not lost on Digital Equipment Corporation and they did eventually haul Alpha Micro into court in an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit.)

Although popular as a small multiprocess server and poor man's mini, the WD-16 was a limiting architecture and Alpha Microsystems switched to the Motorola 68000 for their next generation. Executable incompatibility being bad enough, Alpha Micro did not want to alienate users with the 68000's native byte ordering also making their data files incompatible and swapped CPU and address lines to allow them to transfer unchanged; various custom assembler features were also employed to aid in the transition. First released as a CPU board for their S-100 systems (which they also expanded to 16-bits using a proprietary mechanism), the 68000-based AM-100/L used the new AMOS/L operating system, which was rewritten for the new architecture.

[1980s Alpha Micro logo, revived for the modern company.] The first machine following the original AM-100 and relatives was the very popular AM-1000 in 1982, a heavy-duty desktop system with an 8MHz 68000 and Alpha Micro's legendary VCR interface for backups. The AM-1000 and its successors such as the 1987 AM-1200 turned out to be the most popular of the line, and Alpha Micro supported them for decades. Shortly after the AM-1000 in 1984 came the first of Alpha Micro's long fascination with client PCs in the form of the 8088-based AM-500, along with their first flirtation with UNIX in the guise of the UNIMOS AM-1100E.

The AM-1500 first introduced the VME bus to the line, a popular small to midrange server architecture that went through several revisions of its own. This lineage was succeeded by larger AM-series units, most notably the 68020-based AM-2000 and up which introduced the new AMOS/32 operating system, and finally the Eagles in 1994, high performance systems that used '030 and later '040 CPUs all the way up to the Motorola Coldfire. Eventually Alpha Micro would discontinue the entire 68K-based line after the release of the ColdFire Eagle 250LC, Alpha Micro's last "true" 68K-based platform, in 2001 (the final "classic" AM-series unit being the AM-7000 in 2000). [1990s Alpha Microsystems logo, replaced by the 1980s logo today.]

During this time, Alpha Micro was also deeply involved in their own vertically integrated market-specific software packages, some in-house and some from third-party vendors that Alpha Micro had stakes or controlling interest in. Among these included SWORDS, a cash-carry wholesaler sales system sold in the UK and Ireland by Sabre (whom Alpha Micro bought completely in 1995-6); CV Systems, a veterinary clinic administration software vendor Alpha Micro acquired in 1994 (and subsequently sold to bat-rastard clinic chain VCA in 1996, opinion courtesy this son of a private vet); and several in-house systems such as AlphaHealthCare for clinic management, PANDA for food service (1995), Alpha 2000 for dental practices (1996), and AlphaCONNECT for data mining and presentation (1997). Unfortunately, hard times during the late 1990s caused Alpha Micro to divest itself of most of its software operations, along with some of its international arms (the Belgian subsidiary in a management buyout in 1995 and the UK subsidiary to Sanderson Electronics plc in 1996).

In parallel to the development of their high-end 68000 systems, Alpha Micro had developed compatibility boards for commodity PCs and workstations to allow AMOS to run on them natively using the card's CPU, onboard memory and serial ports, but using the PC's standard devices otherwise. The 1994 Falcon ISA card ran standard AMOS on a 68030 using the AM-PC utility on DOS or Windows, and could be connected to any 286 or better. To reinforce the product, Alpha Micro released the AlphaDIRECT line of PC workstations, essentially standard Windows 95-based Intel Pentium I systems, with the Falcon as a factory-install option. (Linux was offered on later AlphaDIRECT systems but it doesn't appear that the Falcon was supported.) The line was expanded in 2002 with the SuperFalcon, a PCI version using the ColdFire intended for Windows 98 and higher.

The side-car development and PC investment was fortunate as the aging 68K architecture greatly hobbled Alpha Micro's competitiveness even in their core niche markets, particularly as an effort to migrate to the Motorola 88000 yielded no fruit in 1991. In 2003, Alpha Micro completely migrated their server products to the x86 architecture, again based on commodity high-end PC hardware with some additional interfacing for popular serial boards such as the AM-359. For backwards compatibility, a Power Macintosh-like 68K emulator was implemented that allowed instruction code translation in low-level software. The first of these new systems was the AM-8000, a dual AMD Athlon MP 2800+ server; jumping the last 68K AMOS (2.3a) to new version 8.0 with native x86 code, the new AMOS ran on top of a stripped-down Microsoft Windows XP Embedded which handled the PC hardware and console, and EAMOS ("Embedded AMOS") in Flash ROM which handled the AM-specific hardware. The Eagles were also reintroduced in x86 form, starting with the Eagle 800 the same year, and reintroducing the SuperFalcon inside the Eagle 750 running standard Windows XP in 2004.

In 2007, the Falcon returned (of sorts) as the Cardinal USB dongle -- essentially a stripped and highly modified SuperFalcon in a USB device -- making it possible to boot and run AMOS on any USB-capable Windows PC, even on a laptop. Although continuing to have its own CPU and memory, the Cardinal was the first such unit to no longer include native serial ports; importantly, it only operates under USB 2.0, not USB 1.1. Later Eagle 750s were offered with the Cardinal instead of the SuperFalcon.

As of this writing, Alpha Micro's most current AMOS release is 8.2 (2011), now backed by Windows 7 Embedded, which no longer requires EAMOS and facilitates better integration between Windows and AMOS. New sales of the AM-9000 and Eagle 900 are still offered and you can buy them from the corporate Alpha Micro website. [AM-1000E showing 'b'oot phase.]

Where is Alpha Micro (the company) now?

Alpha Micro went through a confusing series of name swaps and changes in ownership subsequent to negotations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, although all of them were still informally called Alpha Micro. In 1999, what was Alpha Microsystems changed names to AlphaServ.com (the .com was part of the name), in reflection of the company's emphasis on service sector operations. Just one year later, AlphaServ.com was spun off with the Internet and AlphaCONNECT operations, and the hardware product unit and Alpha Micro Service Operation became once again Alpha Microsystems, now owned by California-based R. E. Mahmarian Enterprises LLC (Dick Mahmarian being a member of the AM board of directors since 1995); Mahmarian became the new CEO/chairman.

Even this new, revised Alpha Microsystems didn't last long as-was; in 2001, the product division was itself split off and acquired by AMOS vendor Birmingham Data Systems' Alpha Micro Products branch, while AMSO was sold to service firm Optimal Robotics, who intended to continue offering national field service for Alpha Micro users. It was not until 2003 that AMP bought back the Alpha Microsystems and AMSO trademarks, and they remain the company that bears the Alpha Micro brand. Major players on the current executive staff include Alex Begin, CEO; and John Glade (the same John Glade back in 1977), still the vice president of engineering.

As for Dick Wilcox, he retired from Alpha Micro in 1990.

How do I use AMOS?

Here is our Primer on AMOS.

Where do I get AMOS?

Support information for AMOS and getting updates is on our Links Page.

What Alpha Micro models were released?

Here is our Alpha Micro Pageant of Machines.

What other operating systems did/does Alpha Micro support?

Several were supported on Alpha Micro hardware, although some required additional options to run. None of them are still supported on their present product line except, of course, Microsoft Windows XP, and naturally this also does not include the various older MS-DOS and Windows-based Alpha Micro client PCs (apart from the modern XP-based boxen), all of which have had a long history with the company.

Many people will be surprised to see Digital Research's CP/M in this list, which was supported on S-100 systems with the AM-330 card and on the AM-1000 with the AM-1000-128 (both of which carried the requisite Z-80 CPU and ran CP/M 2.2). Unfortunately, neither implementation lasted long.

Alpha Micro also flirted repeatedly with various forms of Pick, particularly on their PC and other non-AMOS-based hardware. In fact, Alpha Micro actually made their own enhanced Pick in 1991 (dubbed Pick 64) that was claimed to be three times as fast while hosting twice the users, and Pick was supported on their Intel-based hardware well into the 1990s.

However, Alpha Micro's most colourful infidelity was with Un*x, most notably UNIX System V. Its first fling was in the form of the UNIMOS brand (Alpha Micro's name for UNIX System V), incarnated as the doomed AM-1100E, which in the eyes of the Alpha Micro community was merely an AM-1000 with a funny name that couldn't run AMOS applications. Sales were accordingly flat and Alpha Micro quietly retired the UNIMOS project in 1987. This didn't dampen enthusiasm for UNIX within the company, however, as the similarly doomed 88K-based RISC systems were intended to run SVR3 and even eventually SVR4, and SCO was offered as an option for most of Alpha Micro's more conventional PC clones. (Alpha Micro even talked about making "AMOS 3.0" POSIX compliant!) Persisting in this twilight for some time, the hot-and-cold love affair finally fizzled with the introduction of the modern Windows XP-based EAMOS systems.

Did anyone make Alpha Micro clones?

Surprisingly, yes. It wasn't long before people discovered that AMOS/L would run on other 68000 boards, although some required a bit of work to get running; nevertheless, a number of users ran AMOS/L on non-Alpha Micro hardware to the great ire of Alpha Micro and several companies made outright clones to capitalize on this market (most notoriously Ultrascience, Dravac (later d/soft), Symbiont Systems, Inner Access Corporation and Dr. Gibbs). Most of these systems were noteworthy for being able to run multiple operating systems, AMOS only being one of several they were compatible with. However, many were aggressively advertised against Alpha Micro's hardware and a few even ran their own upwardly compatible AMOS clones, such as Symbiont's Mirage and d/soft's d/os (say 'DEE-ahs'), which themselves could run on most of the other systems. d/os could even run on an Atari 520ST!

The bumper crop for the invaders was during the later years of the AM-100/L when the board had been well-studied and knockoffs could be generated. Symbiont was the first one to market in 1984, offering their own clones (the Series 70 and Series 400 systems competing with the AM-1072 and AM-1092 respectively) that could run MIRAGE or UNIX, IDRIS and CP/M-68K. The AM-1000 did not deter the horde, as evidenced by the wittily-named NOEL ("NO /L") from Inner Access in 1985, which ran Mirage (and later d/os), AMOS/L, OS-9, CP/M-68K and even Forth, and was designed to compete directly with the new AM-1000 right down to its form factor.

After that, the barn door was wide open and several other peripheral manufacturers jumped in with their own flavours (in addition to the community focused on more conventional general purpose 68K boards which were not specifically advertised as clones and usually required modification). While none of them were widely distributed or heavily used, they were enough to attract attention from the guys in the OC; unsurprisingly, they were very displeased with the clone manufacturers and even more so with the Alpha Micro User Society when advertisements for the clones appeared in their newsletter. Lawsuits flew with at least one audacious target (d/soft) suing back in 1987, but Alpha Micro ultimately could not sustain such multi-fronted legal battles with its own finances to worry about and the gradual erosion of its marketshare caused the clones to fade away just as surely as the rest of the ecosystem.

What would I use an Alpha Micro for today?

If you're willing to buy new or (gently) used, there are one of many VARs out there who would be willing to sell you an application suite. The majority of these suites would be point-of-sale, office management, data mining or other kinds of business apps, of course. Your best best is to get a referral from the Alpha Micro sales staff, or you can look on the Links page.

As a hobbyist with a day job unrelated to computers, my Eagle is purely "just for fun." Since it has AlphaTCP loaded on it, I use it as a webserver and for playing with (when did a hobby have to be practical, anyway?), connected into my backbone via its Ethernet. [AM-65 terminal showing part of a SYSTAT dump.]

Where can I buy an Alpha Micro?
How can I emulate an Alpha Micro to play with one?

If you want to use the original AM-100, you'll have to make the usual vintage computer rounds such as boot sales, swapmeets and (cough) eBay, but they are quite uncommon and usually not sold complete. Remember, you need both CPU boards, and you should probably look at acquiring some of the other cards to make a meaningful system. For the record, I have been watching eBay for Alpha Micro hardware for a long time and haven't seen an AM-100 appear in literally years.

Fortunately, there is a very mature emulator for the AM-100 that will run the original AMOS and even can be connected to with Telnet as if you were on a "serial port." Written by the programmer of VTAM for AMOS, the Virtual Alpha Micro (VAM) emulator includes everything you need to get running and is completely legal, with full permission for redistribution of WD-16 AMOS given from Alpha Micro. It is highly portable and will run on Linux, Windows, Mac OS X and probably pretty much anything else with an ANSI C compiler.

The larger 68K-based Alpha Micros do appear on auction sites and in the wild, though infrequently. The most common model is the AM-1000 and its relatives, simply because so many of them were made, and all of them will run AMOS all the way up to 2.3a (the last supported version on native 68K systems). Early units should be inspected carefully since their hard drives often took a beating when they were decommissioned. Later and upgraded systems include an Ethernet port (either AUI or 10bT) and are especially desireable to the modern user. Make sure enough serial ports are installed, because finding additional cards is usually difficult. Serial ports may not act like "PC" ports: some help with conversion is on the Primer to AMOS page.

If you want a very modern Alpha Micro but don't want to shell out buck$$ for an AM-8000, the Cardinal USB is probably your best bet. It will run under Windows XP and Vista, although there are no plans to allow Mac OS X operation natively (per my conversation with the sales staff). It can be purchased from Alpha Micro directly.

Alpha Micro has stated emphatically that they will not authorize the 68000-based versions of AMOS (presumably the x86 version as well) for use in an emulation environment apart from their official products, so while the 68K AM systems have no technical roadblock to their emulation, the use of AMOS with them is strictly against AMOS' license and is not authorized. The VAM page has a copy of the letter making this plain.

What's with all the AMPM jokes?

AMPM referred originally to the Alpha Micro Package Manager, released as part of AlphaTCP 1.5. Notably, AMPM was not only used for getting updates from Alpha Micro themselves, but also for VARs and support staff to get updates to their customer installs locally from their local update store (and of course the VARs and support vendors themselves used AMPM to get the updates from Alpha Micro too).

Of course, the Alpha Micro marketing staff would have been remiss not to use the obvious AM/PM pun to emphasize "24 hour reliability!" And then there was Alpha Micro Products ...

Besides all that, AM/FM just didn't work as well (despite the fact I could spell "Alpha Micro Fun Machine" correctly).


Where to?

Would you like to learn about AMOS?
Would you like to look at the Alpha Micro Pageant of Models, AMPM's machine listing?
Would you like to download AMOS freeware?
Would you like to see other Alpha Micro resources and links?
Would you like to send me E-mail?

Or, would you like to see what else there is at Floodgap Retrobits?


Cameron Kaiser