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 firstname.lastname@example.org. -- Cameron Kaiser
This site was last modified 8 June 2016: 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.|
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!
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.
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).
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 from Alpha Micro directly.
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.
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-based EAMOS systems.
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.
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.
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.
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).
Or, would you like to see what else there is at Floodgap Retrobits?