Six-way servers: HP goes its own way

Hewlett-Packard unveiled six-way Intel-based servers last week, announcing that it was going to capture the six-way market with the early launch of its LH 6000 and LT 6000r NetServers.Six-way market?

Hewlett-Packard unveiled six-way Intel-based servers last week, announcing that it was going to capture the six-way market with the early launch of its LH 6000 and LT 6000r NetServers.

Six-way market? What six-way market?

The Intel-based four-way server has come into its own as a departmental and/or business division server and an online server for Internet business start-ups. A four-way server contains four processors, a six-way server has six and so on. Various design changes need to take place inside the box to make efficient use of the processors, however.

For database applications involving many users, the four-way server offers a low price, high performance and a single server through which to enforce record-locking controls in the database. Trying to spread such an application across multiple servers magnifies data synchronization problems, making the four-way server a particularly hot segment of the hardware market, industry observers agree.

International Data Corp. figures cited by HP (www.hp.com) indicate quad-processors will grow by almost 100 percent this year and 61 percent in 2001, followed by several years of 50 percent growth.

HP Product Marketing Manager Marisela Young says HP will capture a larger share of the four-way market by being first to market with a six-way server, upping the ante for its competitors. "We're going to offer six-way performance at four-way prices," Young says.

What's with HP's six-way rush? With the debut last month of Microsoft's Windows 2000 operating system, an additional OS has come on the scene with a thirst for more processors. The Data Center version of Windows 2000, slated for release later this year, is expected to run up to eight processors efficiently, while Windows NT 4.0 tended to max out at four, says Chris Bennett, product manager at HP's Network Server Division.

But a check with HP's competitors finds none of them rushing to fill the same void in their product lines. Intel server market leader Compaq Computer, as well as Dell Computer and IBM, all say they will continue making four- and eight-way machines. They doubt there will be much demand for six-way machines.

Compaq "still believes very strongly in the four-way space," says Paul Miller, director of server marketing for the Small and Medium Business and Corporate Markets at Compaq (www.compaq.com). The company predicts the server market will more likely segment into four-way, eight-way and then some larger concentration of central processing units (CPUs). At the Win2000 launch, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that Compaq had teamed up with Unisys (www.unisys.com) to produce 32-node Intel servers to run Windows 2000. But Compaq has no plans for a six-way machine, beyond its optional eight-way ProLiant, infrequently ordered at the customer's request with only six processors.

Susan Blount, manager of the Enterprise Server Product Marketing Group at Dell (www.dell.com), says: "We've chosen to maximize the four-way server. We'll be keeping it in the road map for a long time."

IBM (www.ibm.com) also has no plans to market a six-way server. "The four-way server is not only a sweet spot in the market, but one we intend to grow. We intend to shamelessly steal technology from the high end of the IBM server line [the AS/400 and System/390] and apply it to the industry standard [Intel server] platform," says Tom Bradicich, director for architecture and technology for the IBM Netfinity server line.

HP, in the meantime, says its six-way machines will outclass competitors that stick with four-way servers by 30 percent to 40 percent.

HP has built a Fast Ethernet Network Interface Card into the server motherboard, freeing up one of the peripheral component interconnect (PCI) slots allotted to the NIC. Another built-in, no-added-cost feature is a dual channel controller for Level 5 redundant arrays of independent disks. Both moves hold down the real cost of the server, Bennett says, since customers are typically charged extra for NICs. A RAID controller will typically add $2,000 to the server cost, he says.

The moves also blunt somewhat a criticism of HP's product offerings — that they lack enough PCI slots. With networking and a RAID controller built in, two PCI slots are freed up for other uses, such as a second backup NIC to insulate against failures or other peripherals, Bennett says.

Miller says the Compaq ProLiant four-way servers have six PCI slots, a match for the HP LT 6000r rack-mounted six-way machine and just behind the HP LH 6000 stand-alone server, which has eight. The ProLiant eight-way processor has 11 PCI slots, Miller notes. Server buyers like lots of slots to mix and match peripherals and add redundant NICs to guard against failures, he says.

To get six processors into a standard case, HP redesigned the LH 6000 and LT 6000r motherboards so that the six CPUs take up only as much space as four, Young says.

One of the dividing lines between four-way and higher systems is that eight-way systems tended to require new internal bus architectures over their smaller cousins. The Compaq ProLiant relies on five buses inside the machine to move data quickly between memory, CPUs and input/output data channels, Miller says. HP relies on three PCI buses, according to Young.

The LH 6000 will have an estimated street price of $7,299, Bennett says, with the LT 6000r priced at $8,199. Each may host up to 8 gigabytes of RAM, and include many hot-swappable features, so that components may be replaced without the server being shut down, she says.

Competitors say four-way machines need added internal bus and input/output capacity to make the addition of two more processors worthwhile. Blount says stretching a four-way into a six-way machine doesn't make sense if other internal system components can't keep up with the added processors.

"This HP architecture seems to be somewhere in between four- and eight-way designs," Miller says. When Compaq moves up to eight processors in the ProLiant line, it adds a separate bus for each set of four processors and interfaces each to other system components through a crossbar switch, an internal interconnect that can speed up data flows, he says.

Meanwhile, IBM is preparing to launch on March 14 two new four-way servers in its Netfinity line that will give HP's six-way servers a run for their money, Bradicich says.

The Netfinity 7100 and 7600 will come standard with RAID controller cards. They will include a dedicated system management processor that monitors the system independent of other CPUs, reporting on its vital signs and taking management steps when needed, according to Bradicich.

They also will include a Power Fuel Gauge, designed to tell a system administrator when a server is about to exceed its power capacity. A four-way server that could store and serve HyperText Markup Language pages might find itself "running out of gas" if expected to add the storage and retrieval of many photos, such as an e-commerce catalog might have, Bradicich says.

The servers will also include IBM's ChipKill memory, which allows an entire memory chip to fail without crashing the system.

The Netfinity 7100 and 7600 also will have LightPath, which leads a server repairman to a failed component through a trail of tiny lights. The LightPath feature saves field technicians the task of testing many components when one has failed, and prevents the disposal of a bank of memory chips when only one has failed, Bradicich says.

Meanwhile, Miller says, Compaq, like Dell and IBM, will stick to four- and eight-way machines. "You can configure an eight-way server to be a six-way machine, but I don't know of any customers that are doing that. Six-ways are kind of a no-man's land right now," Bradicich says.