HP takes on Sun, IBM with ‘fastest Unix server’

CIOL Bureau
New Update

NEW YORK: In a packed media event in New York City Tuesday, Hewlett Packard launched the Superdome, the company’s fastest commercial computer so far. According to the company, Superdome is the world’s fastest and most powerful Unix server.

"This is a watershed day for us," said HP CEO Carly Fiorina. "We’re raising the bar on what it takes to be in this market." Part of the HP 9000 family of Unix servers, the Superdome ships with up to 32 processors and 256 GB of memory. A 64-processor version planned for later this year will be crucial for HP’s positioning in the high end of UNIX servers that power dotcom and e-enabled businesses.

The launch venue was significant: a hotel on Wall Street. HP wants to make a splash with big businesses going for the ‘e’, staving off stiff competition there, as well as impress the stock-market and its analysts into giving it better valuations. Financial analysts have criticized its Unix server business, sending shares down. Fiorina has taken the offensive here, saying "we have the best servers in the market, bar none", reorganizing the sales force, and countering analyst concerns and competitor jibes.

Hewlett-Packard launched the Superdome in a crowded, but rapidly growing Unix server market. The high-end Unix server market is building up the competition: Sun has the aging Starfire and the upcoming Ultrasparc III-based Serengeti, Compaq has the 32-processor Wildfire, while IBM has got the 24-processor S80, and SGI the 512-processor Origin.

HP rules the midrange of this market, but has been slow in the low end, where Sun is strong, and in the high end, where so far it has not had the models to compete with IBM’s high end RS/6000 products. HP was once the UNIX systems leader, but lost that leadership to Sun, which gained the most from the Internet boom. According to IDC, Sun has the largest market share for Unix servers. (Sun had about a third of the $26 billion Unix server market last year, HP had a quarter, and IBM about 20 per cent, according to IDC. More significantly, Sun grew well last year, while HP and IBM slowed down.)

"Over the years, HP has taken a rap for being too analytic," Fiorina said, "but this is a radically different go-to-market approach. Fourteen months ago we were basically getting killed in the dot-com space...we gave our competition a hole big enough to drive a truck through. But, no more."

The high-end Unix server segment is important, because it’s typically surrounded by services and backed with lots of other equipment, adding up to both revenues and margins. And, unlike in the low-end server space where Intel and Windows NT have made big inroads, there is very little at the high end to challenge the RISC Unix servers. Users for such large UNIX systems are big enterprises with databases tracking thousands of customers online, or a very complex supply chain., for instance, is a big user of HP 9000 V-class servers, and has been using a Superdome.

HP says it already has 150 orders, including and 16 pre-shipment orders that have been fulfilled, for the SuperDome. The machine, manufactured at its Roseville plant near Sacramento, California, is now shipping in the 32-processor configuration.

Pay as you go

Even more significant than the technology and power is the focus HP is putting on what it calls the utility model. As with a power utility, where you pay for the electricity you actually use, HP will let customers opt for a number of flexible packages, which cut down up-front investment.

"We have placed a bet on the future of computing," Fiorina said, "and it's on utility computing. The option to pay by usage lengthens the life of systems and equipment, and drops the entry barrier."

Customers can still buy the systems outright, but there are a number of options. The first is HP’s "ICOD" or Instant Capacity on Demand model introduced in June for its V-class servers. In this, a system may be shipped with a larger number of CPUs and memory than a customer needs. For instance, a customer who wants four-CPU system now but expects more capacity needs in the near future pays for four CPUs, but gets a Superdome with eight or twelve CPUs--but only four enabled. Later, when traffic increases, for instance, he can pay for more capacity, as HP will unlock additional CPUs remotely without bringing down the system. This is similar to software vendor practice: for instance, Adobe sells CDs with hundreds of encrypted fonts, and as you pay, you get the unlock codes for the fonts. There’s even a seasonal variant being planned where this can be done for a peak season like Christmas, and then reverted to a lower-cost configuration for regular seasons.

The other option is the utility model. A customer installs the Superdome at his premises but does not buy it: he pays HP for the power and capacity he actual uses. Software in the server tracks this and sends HP an e-mail, and a monthly bill is generated, similar to an electricity bill. This is probably unique for hardware, though it is commonplace for systems, software or support.

PA RISC Now, Intel Inside in 2002

The high-end server project at HP was originally code-named "Halfdome", after the famed granite peak in Yosemite National Park, USA. The name almost carried on to the final product. Then HP Marketing realized that "Half" doesn’t make an inspiring name, and "Superdome sounds a lot sexier." Though it joins the HP 9000 family of A, L N and V-class servers, this won’t be called the Z-class or something else: the name Superdome sticks.

The computer will consist of four-processor cells each with separate own memory and I//O. Using a high-speed bus and switches, eight of these building cells can be assembled into a 32-processor configuration, and two of these 32-processor blocks can be joined into the full-fledged 64-processor Superdome scheduled to arrive later.

Like the entire HP9000 family, the Superdome runs on the HP PA RISC processors. The Intel-HP IA64 "Itanium" processor family will be supported in late 2002, for which it will merely need a cell-board upgrade, HP Computing group president Duane Zitzner told Cyber News Service. So far, only SGI has announced dual-processor future support. Further, like the V-class, the Superdome can be clustered in groups of four for supercomputing-class power for technical power users.