HP launches bold open-standards based blade server initiative

HP unveiled a bold new initiative in the web server market today, with the announcement of a CompactPCI and Linux based blade server product line.The term blade server refers to single-card computers that are housed within an open chassis (see photos).

HP unveiled a bold new initiative in the web server market today, with the announcement of a CompactPCI and Linux based blade server product line.

The term blade server refers to single-card computers that are housed within an open chassis (see photos). Rather than developing a proprietary approach--as has been done by rivals Compaq, Sun, IBM, and Dell--HP based its new blade server product line on a combination of existing open standards: CompactPCI along with several Linux implementations (with other OSes to follow).

The introduction marks something of a milestone for CompactPCI, an "industrially hardened" version of the desktop PC's PCI bus. According to Brian Cox, product line manager for HP's new blade server family, this is the first case of a major electronics manufacturer employing CompactPCI in an application which primarily targets enterprise computing. CompactPCI is typically used in applications that demand--and can afford--a very high degree of ruggedness and reliability, such as industrial control, telecommunications switches, and medical instrumentation.

Cox says the CompactPCI approach offers a 2:1 density advantage over traditional 1U rackmount servers. Other benefits include "great improvements over 1U servers in areas such as ease of cabling, serviceability, and manageability."

To be successful with the new CompactPCI-based blade server architecture, HP is going to have to overcome some tough challenges. One problem is that CompactPCI is notoriously expensive, generally being reserved for high-end applications where ruggedness and reliability are more critical than cost.

Secondly, HP has announced plans to support a range of operating systems including several flavors of Linux (Debian, Red Hat, and SuSE), initially, followed by HP-UX and Windows NT. However, CompactPCI is not as straightforward as the desktop PC, having many implementation-specific variations, so HP will have its hands full supporting an entire family of new computer boards across a range of operating systems.

Additionally, the reliability-conscious customers who are willing to pay the higher costs associated with CompactPCI will expect full support for the "High Availability" (HA) capabilities of CompactPCI, including such features as "hot swap", multiprocessing, failover, and backplane messaging.

On the other hand, industry analyst IDC projects that the blade server market will grow to nearly $3B over the next several years, so the potential payback is significant.