Can HP's 'Super' server save Itanium?

Intel's beleaguered processor could get boost when HP releases new top-end Superdome machine designed for it.

Intel's Itanium could get a boost by early 2006 when Hewlett-Packard releases a top-end server designed for the chip, though skeptics doubt the machine will be enough to turn around the beleaguered processor's fortunes.

HP's new top-end Superdome, like current models, has sockets to accommodate as many as 64 Itanium processors. But unlike current models, it will support the new Montecito and Montvale versions of Itanium, which are expected to boost performance substantially.

Most activity in the server market is happening elsewhere, however, said Sageza Group analyst Clay Ryder. "Even in the realm of Superdomes, how many of these does the world need in one given year? It's hard to push sales upward on high-end systems when the mediocre midrange of computing will exceed the needs of 99 percent of the market."

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What's new:
HP's upcoming top-end Superdome will support the new Montecito and Montvale versions of Itanium, which are expected to boost performance substantially.

Bottom line:
The Superdome server could provide a boost to the beleaguered Itanium family. But skeptics say that even if Itanium succeeds in the relatively narrow high-end market, that won't necessarily be enough to keep the processor alive.

More stories on Itanium

HP and Intel believe the new Itanium chips will dramatically boost performance, though. The chips include dual processing engines, called cores, and technology called multithreading that lets each core handle two instruction sequences at the same time.

But a faster chip means a greater appetite for data. "With dual-core and multithreading, you're going to need a new pipe to keep it fed," said Brian Cox, a product line manager for HP's high-end servers.

While the Itanium chips handle computing chores, the essential task of data transfer within the server is handled by a chipset code-named Arches. It's the third-generation Superdome chipset after the initial Yosemite model and the current Pinnacles. (The chipsets are named after national parks and monuments; Yosemite is home to the famous Half Dome peak that also was an early code name for Superdome.)

The Superdome release timing isn't clear. Intel plans to release the Montecito processor in late 2005, and HP will follow soon after. "When it's ready, it's ready," Cox said of the next Superdome. "We're waiting for full-speed silicon from Intel on the chips."

As with Pinnacles--officially called the sx1000--the Arches chipset also will be used in midrange systems with eight or 16 processor sockets, HP said. For smaller machines with one to four sockets, HP will use a chipset code-named Titan, a successor to the zx1 code-named Pluto.

The developments show HP's continuing commitment to Itanium, a chip family the company helped Intel develop as a replacement to its own PA-RISC family. Itanium, however, has fallen far short of its conquer-the-server-world expectations. Intel missed a 2004 Itanium goal of doubling 2003 shipments to 200,000, but there has been some progress: According to Gartner, sales of Itanium servers more than tripled to $1.6 billion in 2004.

Itanium still has skeptics. "The issue with Itanium and HP is one of volume," Ryder said. "This is the platform they bet the company on. For all the years we heard HP and Intel hyping this thing, what we have achieved today is kind of what we expected to see in 1999."

And there's serious competition. IBM's Power5-based p5-595 trounced Itanium in a recent server speed test. And while much of Sun Microsystems' current attention is aimed at its lower-end machines, a partnership with Fujitsu and the high-end Rock processors could boost its fortunes.

HP points to some successes, though. There are 500 customers using Itanium systems to run their business software from SAP--a demanding and essential computing task--and 40 of the world's 100 largest companies are customers, said Mark Hudson, vice president of marketing for HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers group.

Not alone
Also in HP's favor: It isn't alone in the Itanium market. Fujitsu plans to announce its 64-processor Itanium server Tuesday in San Francisco, sources familiar with the plan said. The more Itanium server sellers there are--IBM's coolness notwithstanding--the easier it is to persuade customers and software companies that the products are mainstream.

Intel once envisioned Itanium as suitable for the entire server market but now has retreated to the high end. That's not a great place to be, judging by the failures of Compaq Computer's Alpha processor and the fading fortunes of Silicon Graphics' MIPS, said Gabriel Consulting analyst Dan Olds.

"A processor cannot survive as only a high-end alternative. There simply isn't enough volume to support development and production," Olds said. "Itanium will become merely a replacement for HP's PA-RISC chip--albeit with less software and industry support."

Another complication is the overlap between Intel's Itanium family and its lower-end Xeon family. Xeon can run widely used software written for x86 processors such as Pentium and is gradually becoming more powerful.

With a new generation of Xeon processors this week, though, HP reduced the Itanium-Xeon overlap. Previously, HP developed its own chipset for eight-processor Xeon machines, but the company now develops only four-processor Xeon servers.

High-end servers, used for essential tasks such as tracking company inventory and orders, are a choice market. The machines typically are used for years, and securing a place at the heart of a customer's network can lead to sales of storage equipment, services and lower-end servers.

Machines with dozens of processors and hundreds of gigabytes of memory are rarely used to tackle a single problem, though. More often they're split into independent partitions that handle separate jobs.

"Today, most of these are carved up," Cox said.

The upgrade option
Existing Superdome customers will be able to upgrade to the Arches components without getting rid of the system chassis, Cox said. That could be helpful, given that a full-size Superdome is about the size of two refrigerators.

However, as with the upgrade from Yosemite to Pinnacles, customers will have so swap out not just the electronics boards that house the processors, but also the communications back-plane that links those boards together, Cox said.

Upgrading to Montvale, a faster successor to Montecito due in 2006, will only require processor boards to be changed, Cox said.

After that comes the Tukwila processor in 2007 and its successor, Poulson, but HP can't commit that existing Superdome customers will be able to upgrade to those processors.

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