Hewlett-Packard is gearing up for a major refresh of its Integrity server line, an important step for customers using those systems and also for the future of Intel's high-end Itanium processor.
HP wouldn't discuss the products ahead of a press conference scheduled for Tuesday next week. But it has hinted that Intel's quad-core "Tukwila" processors, launched in February, will allow it to update its Integrity servers with a more modern, modular design that lets customers scale them more easily and reduce ownership costs.
The updates have been a long time coming for Integrity customers. Aside from slightly faster processors, HP hasn't made significant changes to most of the systems since the Integrity brand was introduced in 2003. In particular, its high-end Superdome server has had the same chassis since its introduction almost a decade ago.
Intel's Itanium brand could also use a lift from the new systems. HP is by far the biggest seller of Itanium-based servers, so the chip's future depends in large part on how customers respond to the new systems. With Microsoft and Red Hat both recently announcing plans to stop developing new OSes for Itanium, the HP-UX and OpenVMS platforms become even more critical to its survival.
"It's definitely a huge launch for Itanium," said Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist with In-Stat.
The Integrity line competes mainly with IBM's System p servers, based on its Power processors. HP positions its boxes as a "mainframe alternative" for critical business applications that need large memory configurations and high levels of uptime. They include four-processor entry-class systems, 16-processor midrange systems, and the top-end Superdome server, which houses up to 64 Itanium processors.
Customers who buy such high-end systems don't necessarily want frequent upgrades; stability and reliability are their top concerns, so long as the performance is sufficient. But it's important for HP to stay competitive with IBM, especially if it wants to attract new customers to the platform.
"The high-end market does move slowly, but IBM has been updating its platforms on a two- to three-year cycle, and HP has had the same platforms but with newer, faster chips," said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight64. "This will be the first really major overhaul of the platforms that they have done, and they are taking advantage of all the things the new Tukwila chip enables."
Intel says the Tukwila chips, properly called the Itanium 9300 series, offer double the performance of the current, dual-core Itanium. It has replaced the front-side bus with QuickPath Interconnect, a high-speed pathway that provides faster transfer rates between CPUs, and from CPU to memory. Tukwila also adds an on-chip memory controller to further reduce latency.
The new chips can't be used in most existing Itanium systems, another reason why it is important for HP to entice customers onto its new hardware. Tukwila should allow HP to design a new line of Integrity systems that make it easier for customers to start small and scale up with additional processors and memory, McGregor said.
"You can do that today, but the QPI interface is going to allow a lot more design flexibility, in terms of whether those sockets go on the same board or different boards, how much memory there is and how close it is to the processor," he said.
HP engineers have hinted as much on the company's Mission Critical Computing blog. "Think about transforming mission critical servers from old monolithic boxes to modular building blocks," said one post.
It's a step HP has already taken with its Integrity NonStop servers. Last year it began offering the Nonstop software as an option on its BladeSystem hardware. The move allowed HP to make use of higher-volume components used in other product lines, keeping its manufacturing costs lower.
It may take a similar approach with other Integrity systems. Standardizing components for Itanium-based systems has been Intel's strategy as well. QPI was carried over from Intel's 32-bit Xeon processors, and Intel now has common chipsets for both Xeon and Itanium systems, reducing its development costs.
Indeed, Intel's new eight-core Xeon processors might pose the biggest threat to Itanium. Commenters on HP's Mission Critical blog note that Tukwila is manufactured using an older process technology than its Xeon chips, limiting the speed and power-efficiency improvements that Intel can offer. HP has said low latency and rock-solid reliability are more important in this class of system.
On April 27, customers will be able to make up their own minds. HP has invited customers to sign up for a launch event that will be streamed over the Web from its Technology@Work 2010 conference in Frankfurt, Germany. It is promising "the reinvention of mission critical computing."
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