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Fiorina to unleash HP's latest weapon in server wars

Chief executive Carly Fiorina will unveil the first incarnation of the company's new high-end "Superdome" Unix server in New York on Sept. 12, sources say.

Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina will unveil the first incarnation of the company's new high-end "Superdome" Unix server in New York on Sept. 12, sources said.

HP will unveil the systems gradually, sources familiar with the strategy said. Fiorina will launch the first, using 32 processors, they said.

A 64-processor model will arrive later this year, Duane Zitzner, head of HP's hardware division, told in a July interview.

Superdome is the flagship of HP's effort to regain its strength in the Unix server market, which Sun Microsystems dominates and which IBM is aggressively courting. The market also has seen the arrival of major new server designs with Compaq Computer's Wildfire systems and SGI's Origin 3000 series.

HP representatives declined to comment beyond saying the computer maker planned to launch the servers in the middle of September along with several services. They added that Superdome machines will help in HP's effort to target Sun.

HP's Unix server business had been on the rebound earlier this year, but weak sales last quarter sent HP's stock down.

Unix servers are increasingly popular, partly because of the general increase in demand for servers spurred by the Internet, but also because Unix servers using 64-bit CPUs are able to address large amounts of memory and therefore use large databases. Though Intel currently doesn't have any 64-bit chips, the arrival of Itanium-based servers next year will change that, and Intel hopes its standard servers will sell better than custom designs from Compaq, IBM, HP, SGI and Sun.

HP, the company that initially developed the design for Itanium and later members of Intel's IA-64 family, has been selling Unix servers that will work with either IA-64 chips or HP's own PA-RISC design.

The N-class Unix server, a machine that uses up to eight processors and was unveiled last year, was the first designed to use either chip. HP later introduced lower-end A-class and L-class servers with the same design. Superdome will continue this trend, replacing the V-class machine that can use only PA-RISC chips.

Sun can't seem to build enough of its high-end E10000 servers, despite the aging design and the arrival in 2001 of its replacement, code-named Serengeti. In the last quarter, Sun sold 500 of its E10000s, a fifth of the total sold over the several-year history of the product, which originally was designed by Cray.

IBM argues that its S80 Unix servers are faster than the E10000, but analysts point to other elements of customer choice besides raw performance, including support or software availability. IBM's S80s, which use 24 of IBM's Power chips to the 64 in Sun's E10000, are less expensive, generally costing less than $1 million where E10000s cost more than $1 million. IBM is readying a successor, code-named Regatta, that will use 32 processors.

Sources expect the Superdome machines to generally cost more than $1 million. Using a high-speed connection technology, 64-processor Superdome machines will be able to be grouped into foursomes with 256 processors, Zitzner said. HP this year upgraded its version of Unix, called HP-UX, so it can communicate with as many as 256 CPUs.

Sun's servers enjoy "strong market momentum," Meta Group analyst Brian Richardson said in an Aug. 11 report, but IBM and HP currently offer more bang for the buck. "Our research indicates growing unease at Sun accounts. Unlike the competitive landscape just two years ago, the performance of Sun's systems is being overshadowed by more competitive offerings from IBM and Hewlett-Packard," he said.

Though the upgrade to the Serengeti systems and the UltraSparc III CPU will offer doubled or tripled performance, "UltraSparc III is at least nine months late," he said.

Unix servers in general, however, still will outnumber Windows NT servers for high-end jobs through 2003 or 2004, Richardson said.

SGI's new Origin 3000 series servers are respected, though the financially unsteady company is focusing on niche markets much smaller than the broader marketing salvos unleashed by IBM, Compaq, Sun and HP.

SGI sold two 512-processor Origin 3800 systems to NASA, which will combine them into a single 1,024-processor behemoth for researching aeronautics, Earth science and biology. SGI also sold a 512-processor Origin 3800 to the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, the company said. The Army Research Lab also bought one 256-processor and one 512-processor model.