Could HP be the server king?

David Berlind: The company is well-armed to battle IBM and Dell for server dominance. It has the inside track on Intel's 64-bit CPU and the ZX1 companion chipset.

Although it has taken a while for the relationship to bear fruit, I'm beginning to believe that one of Hewlett-Packard's most strategic assets is the EPIC co-inventor relationship it forged with Intel back in the mid-90s. EPIC, which stands for Explicitly Parallel Instruction Computing, is a technology that serves as the foundation for Intel's 64-bit family of processors (IA-64).

So far, two editions of IA-64 have shipped: Itanium and Itanium 2. There are more to come. Back when HP and Intel forged the agreement, both companies believed that the foundations under their current lines of processors (RISC and CISC, respectively), were close to running out of gas. HP is very slowly migrating its surviving operating systems (HP-UX, NSK, and OpenVMS) to IA-64 and phasing out support for its own RISC-based PA-RISC processor as well as the Alpha processors which Intel acquired from Compaq.

Typically, as the fog over Intel's long-term processor roadmap clears, the company confidentially discloses its designs to systems manufacturers so that they, in turn, can build their own roadmaps for product offerings. This early disclosure is particularly important to companies such as IBM that like to engineer their own systems. (Companies like Dell, who integrate standard building blocks need to see the roadmap as well.) That engineering typically shows up in something called the chipset, the supporting cast of silicon that surrounds the microprocessor and that helps it interface to the computer's subsystems.

While Intel usually offers chipsets to go along with its processors (and companies like Dell are happy to use them), other engineering-oriented companies believe they can deliver added value through their own chipsets. IBM believes this and spent millions of dollars to come up with its Extended X Architecture (EXA), a chipset that, among other things, trickles down some of the company's mainframe reliability, availability, and performance features into an IA-64 system that can easily scale building-block style from four to 16 processors (Intel's standard 8870 chipset maxes out at eight).

As it turns out, HP is another "engineering-oriented" systems manufacturer and it too has built a special companion chipset for IA-64 called ZX1. However, as EPIC's co-inventor, HP has the inside track on where IA-64 is going.

That inside track, says HP's Workstation Business Unit product marketing manager Barry Crume, provides HP with two distinct advantages. For starters, Crume says, HP can be first to market with systems based on every new generation of IA-64. HP has already shipped about 1,000 pre-release versions of its Itanium 2-based servers, which officially started shipping last week. The other is a detailed roadmap that improves the company's economies of scale by unifying most of its systems onto one architecture -- IA-64 with the ZX1 chipset. The result of this unifying architecture is that the company has a hardware platform that not only runs its own operating systems (see above), but Windows and Linux as well. By contrast, the only other company that had plans to put more than Windows and Linux on IA-64 was IBM. Via a collaboration with SCO that was code-named Monterey, Big Blue had plans to ship AIX 5L (its Unix-based competitor to HP-UX) on IA-64. But those plans have since been scuttled. At least for now, AIX will continue to run exclusively on IBM's RISC-based PowerPC architecture.

But, while using the IA-64/ZX1 as a unifying architecture will greatly simplify HP's business, it's not the only company that will benefit from the long-term engineering partnership with Intel. HP's Crume says there are a number of ways that customers will benefit as well.

First of all, Crume says, once a chipset designer decides to scale beyond four processors, the additional engineering required introduces an overhead into the design that results in cost, performance and time-to-market penalties at configurations of four or less processors. So, whereas other chipset designs like EXA made vertical scalability a priority, ZX1 focuses on systems that max out at four processors. While offering various audited benchmarks to prove his point, Crume says "this allowed us to hit the sweet spot of the market first with a performance and price that can't be touched by any of our competitors."

While competitors like IBM, Fujitsu, and NEC will have offerings that scale to many more processors for customers that have compute-intensive needs, Crume says he doesn't need a 16-processor offering to address the needs of those users. Instead of scaling vertically, Crume suggests says you can get more performance for less money by scaling horizontally by using clusters or grids of HP's servers. As evidence of this, Crume cites one his biggest sales victories over other more boutique solutions: 700 IA-64/ZX1-based systems for the US Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, many of which will be clustered with Linux to provided performance at a cost that Crume says the lab couldn't achieve otherwise.

In addition to being a solid price performer with the potential to scale horizontally, Crume says, HP's use of the IA-64/ZX1 architecture as a fundamental building block for most of HP's offerings gives customers the additional benefit of lowered total cost of ownership (TCO) through a unique form of bilateral recyclability. Workstations can be recycled as servers, and vice versa.

"If you can recycle systems in any number of ways," says Crume, " you can increase their lifecycle and utility to the company." To prove his point, Crume talks about how some companies keep their technical users on the bleeding edge with the fastest workstations. "After a year of use, when those users get the next generation systems, IT departments can recycle the old systems by adding them to a server rack as individual servers or part of a cluster and they can run any one of our operating systems or Windows or Linux." HP's Itanium-2 based technical workstations are designed to sit on a desktop as well as in a rack. "Or," says Crume, "the operating system versatility allows companies that keep their servers on the bleeding edge can, at the end of their system's usefulness as servers, r-use them as workstations by pulling them out of the racks and putting them on users' desktops."

Immediately after Crume said that, I asked: "IA-64-based desktops? Running what operating system, Linux?" So far, that's the only operating system I know of that could be realistically deployed on IA-64-based desktops (not including HP-UX, which realistically is only viable for a handful of people). Crume's answer: "The desktop version of 64-bit Windows. We're working with Microsoft on it right now."

Until that discussion with Crume, I hadn't heard of such a thing. But, hey, that coupled with AGP would make one hell of a gaming system. By the way, ZX1 supports current and future generations of AGP.

In a previous column, I opined that deep-pocketed companies like IBM, with the ability to develop strategic technologies like EXA, were well-positioned to produce market-leading products, if not market dominance. After hearing Crume's ZX1 story, I have few doubts that HP is one of those companies. Between HP's ZX1, IBM's EXA, and the economic realities of Dell's direct model, the stage is set for a battle in the server market the likes of which we haven't seen before. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out over the next five to ten years and what toll, if any, it will take on Sun.

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