April 14th, 2016 ~ by admin

DEC NVAX++ NV5: The End of VAX

DEC NVAX 21-34457-05 246B - 1992  -71MHz

DEC NVAX 21-34457-05 246B – 1992 -71MHz

About a year ago we covered the DEC RIGEL VAX Processor.  After The RIGEL DEC moved to make a single chip VAX processor that would include the CPU, FPU, and cache controller on one single die.  Work on the design began in 1987, and first silicon shipping in 1991.  Performance ended up being as good or better then the very high end VAX 9000 systems (implemented in ECL logic).

The original NVAX processor was made on a 0.75u 3-Layer CMOS process (DEC CMOS-4) and contained 1.3 million transistors in a 339 pin CPGA package.  Initial clock speed, in 1991 was 71MHz.  NVAX was then the fastest CISC processor made.  Speeds ramped up to 90.9MHz at the high end and a lower end of 62.5MHz. The first NVAX models were identified as 246B and 246C. Later versions, made well into 1996, were made on the CMOS-4S process, a 10% shrink to 0.675u and were labeled 1001C.

Internally NVAX was very familiar, the FPU was largely reused directly from RIGEL.  The NVAX also maintains the 4-phase clocking scheme from RIGEL, but moves the clock generator on chip. It also maintained the 2K of on die instruction cache from RIGEL, but added a 8K data/instruction mixed cache as well.  An L2 cache was supported in sizes of 256K 512K 1M or 2M, and located off chip.  The NVAX continued the 6-stage pipeline of RIGEL with some enhancements.  One of the greatest performance enhancements over RIGEL is the handling of pipeline stalls.  In the RIGEL pipeline, a stall in one stage would stall the entire pipe line, whereas on NVAX, in most cases, a stall in one stage does not prevent the other stages from continuing.

At nearly the same time as the development of the NVAX DEC was also developing a competitor to MIPS, a RISC architecture.  This new RISC architecture was codenamed EVAX, for Enhanced VAX, and was a purely RISC architecture that could run translated VAX CISC code with very little performance penalty.  It did however borrow from VAX, like the NVAX, EVAX used the FPU from the RIGEL. DEC went on to brand the EVAX as Alpha AXP, to separate it from the VAX line, though its internal naming of EV4, EV5 etc was left intact, as the last remnant of VAX.

DEC 2140568-02 299D NVAX++ 170.9MHz - 1996 - from a VAX7800

DEC 21-40568-02 299D NVAX++ 170.9MHz – 1996 – from a VAX7800

Having two high performance processor types at the same time left DEC in a bit of a dilemma so they created a third, known as the NVAX+ (DEC 262D).  The NVAX+ was originally made on the same CMOS-4 process as the NVAX and ran at 90.9MHz.  The NVAX+ was meant to be a bridge between the VAX line and the Alpha AXP.  It was a NVAX core, wrapped in an EVAX (Alpha AXP) external interface, it was made in the same 431PGA as the Alpha 21064 and was pin for pin compatible, the same board could be used for either.  It supported more L2 cache then the NVAX, supporting six cache sizes (4MB, 2MB, 1MB, 512KB, 256KB, 128KB),

In 1994 the NVAX+ was shrunk to the DEC CMOS-5 4-Layer 0.5 micron process resulting in the NVAX++ (DEC 299D) which ran from 133-170.9MHz.  These speeds continued to be the fastest CISC processors until Intel released the Pentium Pro at 180 and 200MHz in 1996.  Ultimately Intel’s dominance, and the coming dominance of RISC performance were the writing on the wall, and the VAX, and not long after it DEC itself were doomed to reside in the history books.  By 1997 The NVAX++ was off the market.  In 1997 the DEC Alpha team was operating out of offices owned by Intel (who also took over DEC’s fab’s), and in 1998 the remains of DEC, and the Alpha team, were bought by Compaq. And by 2004 Alpha was phased out in favor of Itanium (a now rather ironic decision by HP/Compaq).


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September 15th, 2013 ~ by admin

Compaq 21364 Processor – The Omega of the Alpha

Compaq 21364 Alpha Prototype - 2002

Compaq 21364 Alpha Prototype – 2002

The DEC Alpha was one of the fastest processors of the 1990’s. The original 21064, manufactured in CMOS, rivaled the fastest ECL processors and blew away most everything else.  Clock speeds were 150-200MHz (eventually hitting 275MHz) at a time when a standard Intel PC was hitting 66MHz, at the very top end. It was manufactured on a 0.75u process using 1.68 million transistors.  The Alpha was a 64-bit RISC design, at a time when 16-bit computing was still rather common.  This gave the architecture a good chance at success and a long life.

The 21064 was followed by the 21164 in 1995 with speeds up to 333MHz on a 0.5u process, now using 9.3million transistors.  It added an on die secondary cache (called the Scache) of 96KB as well as 8KB instruction and Data caches.  These accounted for 7.2 million transistors; the processor core itself was only around 2.1 million, a small increase over the 21064.  At the time the main competition was the Pentium Pro, the HP PA8800 and the MIPS R10000.  Improved versions were made by both DEC and Samsung, increasing clock speeds to 666MHz by 1998.

In 1996 DEC released the next in the series, the 21264.  The 21264 dropped the secondary cache from the die, and implemented it off chip (now called a Bcache).  The level 1 caches were increased to 64KB each for instruction and data resulting in a transistor count rise to 15.2 million, 9.2 million of which were for the cache, and the branch prediction tables.  Frequency eventually reached 1.33GHz on models fab’d by IBM. However the end of the Alpha had already begun. DEC was purchased by Compaq in 1998, in the midst of the development of the enhanced 21264A.  Compaq was an Intel customer, and Intel was developing something special to compete with the Alpha.

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