Advanced Computing Environment

Advanced Computing Environment

The Advanced Computing Environment (ACE) was defined by an industry consortium in the early 1990s to be the next generation commodity computing platform, the successor to Wintel-based personal computers.

Formation

The consortium was announced on April 9, 1991 by Compaq, Microsoft, MIPS Computer Systems, Digital Equipment Corporation, and the Santa Cruz Operation. Other members of the consortium included Acer, Control Data Corporation, Kubota, NEC Corporation, NKK, Olivetti, Prime Computer, Pyramid Technology, Siemens, Silicon Graphics, Sony, Sumitomo, Tandem, Wang Laboratories, and Zenith Data Systems. Besides these large companies, several start-up companies built ACE compliant systems as well.

The environment standardized on the MIPS architecture microprocessor family and two operating systems: SCO UNIX with Open Desktop and what would become Windows NT (originally named OS/2 3.0). The Advanced RISC Computing (ARC) document was produced to give hardware and firmware specifications for the platform.

The porting of the Microsoft operating system to other instruction set architectures created hope that other hardware platforms could more effectively compete with Wintel PCs . The belief was that RISC based computers would deliver superior price-performance to that of the older platform. Eventually, Windows NT was also ported to the DEC Alpha and PowerPC processors as well.

The initiative was used by chip companies as an attempt to take market share away from Intel. System companies used the initiative as an attempt to take market share away from the workstation leader, Sun Microsystems.

The "Apache Group"

Soon after the initiative was announced, a dissenting faction of seven ACE members declared that the decision to support only little-endian architectures was short-sighted. This subgroup, known as the Apache Group, promoted a big-endian alternative. The group, whose name was conceived as a pun on "Big Indian", was unrelated to the later Apache Software Foundation. It later adopted the name MIPS/Open.

A rift within the ACE consortium was averted when it was decided to add support for big-endian SVR4.

Dissolution

Even so, the ACE initiative (and consortium) began to fall apart little more than a year after it started, as it became apparent that there was not a mass market for an alternative to the Wintel computing platform. The upstart platforms did not offer enough performance improvement from the incumbent PC and there were major cost disadvantages of such systems due to the low volume production. When the initiative started, RISC based systems (running at 100-200 MHz at the time) had substantial performance advantage over Intel 80486 and original Pentium chips (running at approximately 60 MHz at the time). Intel quickly migrated the Pentium design to newer semiconductor process generations and that performance (and operating frequency) advantage slipped away.

Compaq was the first company to leave the consortium, stating that with the departure of CEO Rod Canion, one of the primary backers behind the formation of ACE, they were shifting priorities away from higher-end systems. This was followed in short order by SCO announcing that they were suspending all work on moving their version of Unix to the MIPS platform.

There were other potential conflicts: earlier that year, MIPS had been purchased by SGI, which may have also contributed to concerns about the neutrality of the target platform. DEC had released their Alpha processor and were less interested in promoting a competing architecture. And finally, the significant improvements in Intel x86 performance made abandoning it less attractive, and although ACE supported x86 for a time, Intel was never a member.

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