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HP launching Montecito servers--without Montecito

Company to debut high-end Unix server without intended processor, thanks to Intel's continued chip release delay.

Hewlett-Packard will launch a high-end Unix server in March, but because Intel delayed its new "Montecito" version of Itanium, the system will initially come with the current "Madison" processor.

The system will debut in two phases, first with Madison and then with Montecito inside, thus watering down the performance boost HP would have gotten with a launch in one fell swoop. However, the approach will still be useful for customers running into the limits of the current models, Rich Marcello, head of HP's Business Critical Server Group, said in an interview Monday.

"A lot are in need of more bandwidth and less latency. There's no reason why you should wait," Marcello said, adding that even with the same processor, the move from the present system to the new models will boost performance about 30 percent to 35 percent for server tasks.

The new systems are the third generation of HP's upper-end Superdome line of Unix servers. The first generation used an internal chipset, code-named Yosemite, that connected the Itanium processors to each other and to subsystems such as memory and networking. The current generation's chipset is code-named Pinnacles, while the new models that will debut next month use a chipset named after a third national park, Arches.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based server maker is beavering away on future products, as well: A fourth Superdome chipset code-named Windjammer is scheduled to debut in 2008 with Intel's "Tukwila" version of Itanium.

With the Arches systems, HP evidently decided not to wait for Montecito, Intel's first Itanium model with dual processing engines, called cores. IBM in 2005 became the leader of the $17.5 billion Unix server market with its Power processor-based systems, and Sun Microsystems experienced unexpected demand for its new UltraSparc IV+-based models last quarter.

"With the Montecito slip, if HP is saying they're going to release in March, they may well have felt they couldn't wait any longer," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. A single launch would have looked better, he added: "From a marketing standpoint, you can conflate performance from new chipset with performance from the new chip and come up with more of an 'Oh wow!' factor than you can individually."

In October, Intel delayed Montecito from 2005 to mid-2006. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker also pushed back its Montvale successor from 2006 to 2007 and Tukwila from 2007 to 2008.

HP will provide incentives to encourage upgrades to Montecito when that processor arrives in HP's Unix servers this summer, Marcello said. "We'll offer stuff that will make it attractive for them to go forward," he added. The Montecito upgrade will roughly double performance again, he said.

The Itanium chip family, codeveloped by HP and Intel, has been a cautionary tale for the computing industry. Initially billed to be as widespread as x86 models--such as Intel's Pentium--are today, the chip now is positioned just for higher-end servers. And although Unisys, Silicon Graphics Inc., NEC, Fujitsu, Groupe Bull and Hitachi all design and sell Itanium servers, HP is the sole Itanium advocate among the dominant four server makers, which also includes IBM, Dell and Sun.

Software incompatibilities, poor initial performance and product delays hampered the chip's arrival. Despite that, a survey by analyst firm IDC found unexpectedly favorable views of Itanium. Its forecast of customer spending of $6.6 billion on Itanium servers in 2009 is still far short of earlier, much more bullish forecasts.

About 30 percent of HP's high-end server revenue comes from Itanium. When HP merged with Compaq Computer, it forecast that by the end of 2005, Itanium servers would reach half the revenue of the PA-RISC-based Unix servers they're replacing, but that goal is taking 12 to 18 months longer to achieve, Marcello said.

"We probably have another 18 months or so until we get it done," Marcello said, giving two reasons for the revised schedule. Necessary software had to support Itanium, and the Itanium chips themselves had to get past initial problems.

"We had to make sure that we really did have a concrete Itanium road map. We had a couple misses with Itanium," he said. "We had a couple hits. We're about to have another hit."

One change to Itanium was a redesign of the Tukwila model, now scheduled to arrive in 2008. Originally, the chip had many cores, but a redesign resulted in fewer, more powerful cores.

"HP welcomed the new design because fundamentally, the cores were fatter. It was a real win in terms of being competitive with our primary competitor, which is (IBM's) Power," Marcello said.

Some companies--most notably Sun with its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara" processor--advocate chips with many processing cores. Each of UltraSparc T1's eight cores also can execute four independent instruction sequences called threads.

As with IBM's Power5 processor, each of Montecito's cores can execute two threads. The new feature is "pretty good" but probably won't set the world afire, Marcello said.

"Is it going to be great out of the chute? Probably not. But it'll be a solid implementation and a lot of customers will take advantage of it," he said.