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New HP Unix servers sharpen e-commerce focus

The revival of server computers based on the Unix operating system continues as Hewlett-Packard introduces another model aimed at the Internet market.

The revival of server computers based on the Unix operating system will continue today as Hewlett-Packard introduces another model aimed at the Internet market.

So-called L-class servers, ranging in price between about $15,000 and $50,000, fall at the low end of HP's Unix server line but are still a few notches above most of HP machines that run competing Windows NT software. Not so long ago, it seemed that the Microsoft operating system couldn't be stopped from making inroads into corporate use, but Unix appears to have found new life with Internet-related features.

In a new partnership based on the introduction of the L-class line, HP will sell servers along with software from Nokia that lets companies set up online services that can be used with cellular phones. The services use the emerging Wireless Access Protocol (WAP), employed by several other cell phone makers besides Nokia.

"All the strengths of Unix--availability, manageability, reliability--are cool again with the Internet," Ann Livermore, head of HP's enterprise computing group, said in an interview.

Indeed, because the decades-old Unix is so popular in the Internet infrastructure, top computing companies have spawned a host of marketing campaigns based around the software. IBM last week accelerated its "magic box" ad campaign; Sun Microsystems continues trying to persuade businesses to "dot-com" themselves; and Compaq is plugging its "NonStop e-business" plan.

For its part, HP wants its servers to deliver Internet-based "e-services" that tie businesses together. Internet servers have helped carry Sun to an all-time high in profitability and stock price in recent months.

The L-class servers fit into this strategy in several ways. HP will package the system along with software from several of HP's e-services partners, including BEA Systems, Broadvision, Ariba.com, SAP, and Oracle, said Janice Chaffin, general manager of HP's business-critical computing unit, which reports to Livermore.

At the same time, the Nokia agreement fits with HP's belief in the importance of "accessing Web servers and e-services from wireless devices other than PCs," Livermore said.

The servers are being sold with the software so that companies can set up the systems as quickly as possible, Chaffin said. "We're trying to prepackage and preconfigure as much as possible so the services required are minimized," she said, but HP will offer customization and support services as well.

In addition, the L-class servers will come with HP's "e-speak" software, said Kelly Spang, an analyst with Technology Business Research. E-speak is designed to let computers on the Internet automatically find each other, communicate, and strike deals, but the software still is under development.

The initiative has merit, Spang said, but HP customers still don't understand e-speak fully. "There are still a lot of questions about what e-speak is and what it does for you," she said.

As to the systems themselves, the new server was needed to replace aging designs using HP's PA-RISC chips, according to Spang and others. "In terms of the hardware, this is a necessary step HP had to take to upgrade what I think was the weak link in their HP 9000 line," Spang said.

HP will be taking on Compaq, Sun, and IBM with the L-class machines. At the high end of the market, HP's V-class machines compete chiefly with Sun computers.

The L-class servers can use as many as four of HP's PA-RISC 8500 processors, Chaffin said. Like their more powerful siblings, N-class systems that can handle up to eight 8500s, the L-class servers will be upgradable to Intel's upcoming 64-bit chips, the first of which is due next year.

Spang said HP builds the L-class servers and the N-class servers at a new facility opened in May in Roseville, California. The time to build and test a new system is just 72 hours, she said, and the assembly lines at the facility can be easily switched back and forth to build L-class or N-class machines, which should help HP meet demand.

In a related matter, HP is working on a new high-end Unix system code-named Superdome that will be upgradable to Intel's 64-bit chips, said Jim Russell, chief operating officer of HP's enterprise computing group, at a conference in August.