First NeXT RISC Workstation

Our first look at NEXTSTEP on HP's low-cost pizza box

by Lee Sherman

NeXT has been chasing a chimera called the NeXT RISC workstation since almost the beginning of the company's existence. Few saw the legendary beast, but its reputation spread far and wide throughout the NeXT community. Hewlett-Packard's new low-cost workstation comes the closest yet to capturing that machine's mythical appeal.

The arrival of NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC provides NeXT customers with new high-performance hardware choices that, for the first time, allow them to deploy NEXTSTEP throughout the entire enterprise. And the portable nature of NEXTSTEP once again gives developers access to a new market with a minimum of effort.

"The PA-RISC architecture has a tremendous amount of credibility in the financial-services community, as well as the broader UNIX community," says Jonathan Schwartz, president of Lighthouse Design. "This is one of the first unadulterated pieces of good news for NeXT since they decided to get out of the hardware business."

In the beginning

NeXT first looked at RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) technology in the early eighties when it planned the original Cube. But RISC was not yet mature, and instead the company went with the latest in CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) technology, the Motorola 68030. With the design for the NeXT RISC workstation on the drawing boards, NeXT found itself in the middle of an industry price war that was won by Intel, another CISC architecture. Porting to Intel and closing down hardware operations were survivalist tactics, not long-term strategies. The RISC workstation died a premature death, a victim of the price war.

CISC processors like the Pentium are reaching the end of their life span; they support complex instructions that can take several clock cycles to complete, while RISC processors use simplified instructions that can be executed in only one or two clock cycles. With the port to PA-RISC to be followed by versions of NEXTSTEP for SPARC and possibly Digital Equipment Corporation's Alpha, NeXT is staking its future on RISC.

NeXTWORLD got a sneak preview of NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC running on the new Model 712, and we were impressed with how well the NEXTSTEP experience translates to a radically different architecture. Put simply, it's is where NEXTSTEP belonged all along (see "Eight Bit Wonder").

HP's Precision Architecture RISC processor was first introduced in 1986 and, over time, has become the industry leader in both performance and price/performance over competitors such as Sun Microsystem's SPARC and Silicon Graphic's MIPS. Like NEXTSTEP, it is a proven technology that is just beginning to move up the price/performance ramp. HP has committed to PA-RISC for the next decade, with plans to use the microprocessor in everything from personal digital assistants to high-end servers.

NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC will run on the HP Apollo 9000 Model 712, 715, 725, 735, and 755 but was specifically designed with the 712 in mind. NeXT has been shipping PDO (Portable Distributed Objects) for the Series 800 Business Servers since November 1993.

With the introduction of the Model 712, HP is helping NeXT remove the hardware barrier around choosing NEXTSTEP. There is now a wide range of available options at nearly every price point and performance level.

Although the Model 712 is initially targeted at the financial-services market, its capabilities suggest that it will also have appeal in multimedia and publishing, markets that were once promising but have long remained closed to NeXT. It could even reawaken interest in NeXT in academic circles – NeXT's original target market.

Customers in financial services typically require higher performance and a level of integration not possible with a PC. "We're pushing toward on-line, global, real-time systems, and there are limitations to what a PC architecture is going to be able to do," says Jim Holworst, senior vice-president of trading products at First National Bank of Chicago. According to Holworst, the new software is arriving just in time, as his firm looks for a replacement for its aging black hardware. "NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC gives them everything they need," says Jonathan Guerster, financial services marketing manager of HP's workstation group, "access to the enterprise, high performance, and rapid application development and deployment."

NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC is the missing piece in the strategy outlined by NeXT and HP when the two companies joined forces last May. NeXT software now runs on the complete range of HP hardware – Intel-based Vectra PCs, 700 series workstations, and Series 800 servers. "End users can decide what level of performance they need," says Guerster.

HP has been striving for years to put a human face on UNIX. With NEXTSTEP running on a low-cost workstation, the company finally has the opportunity to move into the commercial space that, until now, has eluded it. "The financial-services market was a clear win, so we did that first," says Eric Chu, NeXT's product marketing manager. "But NEXTSTEP opens up a lot of doors to the HP sales force."

Chu divides the potential markets into two groups. The first, of course, is financial services, the group targeted with the Object•Enterprise initiative. The second encompasses all other vertical markets, including health care and telecommunications. According to Chu, pricing will continue to remain the same across all NEXTSTEP ports (which is not necessarily true of OpenStep implementations like Solaris, since their price is set by the software vendor, not NeXT).

The extent of HP's commitment to the new platform remains in question. NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC is just one option being offered to HP customers, and current marketing efforts are focused in just one narrow segment. HP will support Taligent objects within HP-UX, providing some of the benefits of NEXTSTEP. For some, the lack of Windows compatibility will remain a nagging concern. Many will continue to stick with HP-UX 9.0 running Motif 1.2 X11 Release 5. HP-UX will run Windows applications under WABI or SoftWindows, but there is currently no way to run these applications under NEXTSTEP.

Customers who need advanced networking capabilities and multitasking might decide to wait for the impending port of Windows NT to PA-RISC. But for existing NEXTSTEP users who have never quite shaken the workstation mentality, the partnership is a dream come true.

Any port in a storm

NeXT first proved its porting expertise with the Intel port in May 1993, as it was beginning its transition into a software company. The NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC project officially began on July 1, 1993, taking a team of 20 enginners approximately one year to complete. The software will ship sometime this summer, according to Avie Tevanian, NeXT's director of RISC, and subsequent ports are likely to take the same amount of time, with NEXTSTEP for SPARC arriving at the end of 1994. "It's a similar recipe, we just need to change the processor," says Tevanian.

Even before the decision to drop its hardware was made, NeXT had been flirting with putting its OS on other architectures. Much of the initial work that resulted in the HP port was done when NeXT was considering which CPU to use for the fabled NeXT RISC workstation. "When we started, we had a lot of experience, not only with Intel but also with the 88000 architecture and the PowerPC," says Tevanian. "We found that we had already done a lot of the work."

To facilitate the project's completion, Hewlett-Packard engineers worked on-site at NeXT, handling low-level issues related to their hardware, such as device drivers, while NeXT engineers concentrated on higher-level issues relating to NEXTSTEP. With the re- turn to more proprietary hardware, future ports, like the upcoming version of NEXTSTEP for SPARC, will continue to be driven by such partnerships. "When we do these types of projects, we need a partner to help us," says Tevanian. "We're not going to just go out and get a machine and figure out how it works."

The port proved easier than the port to Intel because the target platform, the 712 workstation, has a relatively finite set of hardware requirements. "The nice thing is that there aren't a lot of different Ethernet and SCSI cards or lots of different ways to display on the screen, so we don't have to replicate our work," explains Tevanian. "We could do just one set of drivers."

For both users and developers, NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC is virtually identical to the versions for Motorola and Intel. Beyond increased performance, you won't see any major changes in the NEXTSTEP environment. "We're interested in delivering the NEXTSTEP experience to as many people as possible," says Chu.

In a heterogeneous world, NeXT will live or die by how well it lives up to that strategy. On the Intel platform, the task was made harder by the many possible configurations and the need to integrate Windows into the NEXT- STEP environment. NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC is a no-compromise version of NEXTSTEP, with all of the elegance intact.

The new math

Initially, the software available for PA-RISC will be a subset of what is available for Motorola and Intel. It can't be assumed that developers will follow wherever NeXT leads, but because NeXT has laid the groundwork, porting an application to any new platform requires little more than a recompile, with no changes to the source code. "You recompile, double-click it, and it works," says Tevanian.

With the Intel port, NeXT claimed that it could be accomplished in a matter of days. On PA-RISC, Tevanian says the port can take as little as one hour. You can expect to see mainstream NEXTSTEP applications, like Anderson Financial Systems' WriteUp; Athena Design's Mesa; Lighthouse Design's Concurrence, Diagram!, and Taskmaster; and Sarrus Software's SBook and Pencil Me In, available for PA-RISC on or near the time of release.

While Tevanian's claims may be exaggerated and don't take into account software testing, documentation, or other aspects of producing commercial software, the number of potential new seats seems to outweigh the costs associated with porting, especially for those developers already in the NEXTSTEP market. "I think those vendors that are still viable will port," says Lighthouse Design's Schwartz. "Some of the smaller utilities might not happen simply because those companies may not get access to a PA-RISC machine."

Costs are low enough that developers can enter new markets without having to leave another one. The number of seats they can sell into can double or triple overnight. "We took development and packaging out of the equation," explains Chu. "The only thing left for a developer to do is QA, and they've got a product. We've really lowered the barrier on entering many new markets."

The message to developers is that NEXTSTEP is not just one architecture but several, all of which interoperate across a network. NeXT is telling software vendors to develop their applications on Intel now and port to other architectures as they become available. But PA-RISC may eventually become the development platform of choice because it can significantly decrease compiling time.

Leapin' lizards

Regardless of the lack of applications, users who need the ultimate in NEXTSTEP performance will turn to the Model 712 in droves. When it comes to naming its computers, HP is all business. The "Model 712" may not sound sexy, but the machine itself is. (Perhaps HP should have stuck with the more appropriate code name, Gecko.) Powered by the latest PA-RISC chip, the screaming PA-7100LC, which runs at up to 80MHz and features amenities like built-in CD-quality audio and full-motion video capabilities, this machine could be the workstation for which longtime NEXTSTEP users have been waiting.

The Model 712/60, which runs at 60MHz, is rated by HP at 58 SPECint, while the 712/80i is rated at 84 SPECint. Both systems deliver 79 SPECfp, making them the fastest NEXTSTEP machines available. By contrast, a NeXTstation Color is rated at around 12 SPECint and 10 SPECfp.

NEXTSTEP for HP PA-RISC was clearly designed with the Model 712 in mind. The 712's integrated hardware capabilities and sleek look calls to mind NeXT's original black hardware. At the same time, it returns NeXT to a level of price/performance that it hasn't experienced since the introduction of the NeXTstation.

Like Silicon Graphic's Indy platform, the Model 712 running NEXTSTEP provides all of the benefits of running a high-end UNIX operating system with an easy-to-use interface and powerful underlying hardware. It also includes multimedia capabilities at a price point low enough to compete with high-end PCs. This point is reinforced by a PC-style keyboard and mouse. "We talked to a lot of customers, and we heard loud and clear that they wanted more hardware choices," says Chu.

The Model 712, despite its conservative name, is a fire-breathing monster that eats CPU cycles for breakfast. Together, NeXT and HP have done what neither company could do alone.

Lee Sherman is a senior contributing editor to NeXTWORLD.