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A Matrix of HP blades

Hewlett-Packard has very explicitly upped its blade integration story with its BladeSystem Matrix.

Few things are more annoying to PR folks than being all revved up for a big announcement, and then some big event comes along and sucks all the air out of the tech news cycle for the day.

That's what happened to Hewlett-Packard on Monday. The company announced its BladeSystem Matrix. And Oracle announced its decision to acquire Sun Microsystems.

Guess which won the coverage game. (And, yes, I'm one of the guilty parties.)

On a normal day
But on a normal day, Matrix would have, or at least should have, generated a lot of interest. Here's why.

First, a little background about server blades. They were initially pitched back around 2000 as a hardware-focused approach that disaggregated processing from the other components of a computer system and physically consolidated it. We still see remnants of that vision when blades are used in high-performance computing and some high-transaction Web sites.

But they've largely evolved in a different direction. Software (for management and virtualization) and a new style of integration are now the most important elements of mainstream commercial blade products. Many of the virtues extolled early-on for blades--fewer cables, better density, less physical redundancy--remain to be sure. But even if they're necessary, they're not sufficient.

Which brings us to HP BladeSystem Matrix. It's very explicitly an integration play. As HP put it to me: "Matrix is the box, the operating environment, the partners. The overarching environment. It's much more deeply integrated than just a bundle."

The box is HP c-Class blades (both Integrity and ProLiant) including HP's Virtual Connect 8Gb Fibre Channel and Flex-10 Ethernet modules. Virtual Connect essentially virtualizes LAN and SAN connections--allowing them to be switched among server blades inside the box in response to changing resource needs.

The software is something HP calls the Matrix orchestration environment. It brings together several components that HP already sells (and can also ship separately): Insight Dynamics-VSE, Orchestration, Recovery, and Virtual Connect Enterprise Manager (EM). Collectively, this software provides automated provisioning, capacity planning, and disaster recovery.

Finally, partner integration goes beyond the usual "we work with partners." Everyone does that. Specific application templates done in conjunction with the likes of SAP provide standardized (but customizable) ways of setting up complex software environments from a self-service portal.

Down this road before
HP has been down this road conceptually before.

In 2001, it offered up the Utility Data Center (UDC) as the ultimate adaptive, dynamic data center infrastructure--in other words, the sort of attributes it now associates with Matrix. But UDC was ahead of its time. It was tied to a lot of expensive, dedicated components. And it was not especially integrated with software outside of HP. Matrix--as well as other takes on dynamic data centers such as that from VMware--may incorporate proprietary technologies, but it's much more rooted in industry standards and standard components than UDC was. (CNET's Dan Farber has a 2004 take on UDC's demise .)

But the UDC vision and the things that HP learned from the experience clearly informed its work on Matrix.

One last note. I've seen some commentary in the vein of this announcement being a reaction to Cisco Systems. Cisco's Unified Computing System has justifiably grabbed a lot of attention. After all, Cisco is an industry heavyweight. And if Cisco is indeed serious about becoming a data center player beyond networking gear, that's big news.

However, Cisco is just starting out. HP is on its second major generation of blades and is building on software and earlier projects that, in some cases, go back a decade or more.

So to call Matrix a reaction to a newcomer gives Cisco more credit than it deserves at this point. Rather, I view this as HP continuing to build on existing plays that have already led its blades to the No. 1 spot.