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PC makers take hard road to Xeon

As they unveil new, high-powered servers based on Intel's Xeon processor, PC makers look back on their struggle.

PC makers today unveiled a slew of powerful servers aimed at weaning corporations from Unix--but it took a long time for Compaq to get there.

Servers from Compaq, Dell, and others are the first to use eight of Intel's most powerful processors, trying to match the sophistication of designs offered by Sun Microsystems and others that use the Unix operating system.

These servers, based on Intel's Pentium III Xeon processor, are aimed at a rarified class of high-end corporate customers that need multiprocessor servers to run large database applications and Internet software.

Behind the scenes, their development demonstrates the advantages and pitfalls of partnering with microprocessor giant Intel.

Today it's paying off, though that hasn't always been the case.

"This is Compaq's day to shine," said James Gruener, analyst with the Aberdeen Group. Compaq championed eight-processor Xeon servers nearly three years ago and worked with Intel on the Profusion chip set that power the servers.

That and an advanced server design put Compaq ahead coming out of the gate, said Gruener. But, he warned that HP, Dell Computer and IBM are right behind Compaq.

Compaq's eight-processor play started when the Pentium Pro was Intel's high-performance processor and Xeon development was still on the drawing board.

Intel's processor road map at that time intrigued Compaq executives because an eight-processor design was available. But Compaq elected to bypass the older Pentium Pro and wait to invest in developing an eight-way Xeon server.

Paul Santeler, vice president of enterprise servers for Compaq's Industry Standard Server division, said he was involved in the decision not to go with the older Pentium Pro design. By Compaq's evaluation, the servers would reach the market shortly before four-way servers based on the newer Xeon processor, which offered better performance.

But that wasn't exactly how things played out. Intel unexpectedly delayed getting four-processor Xeon technology to market, and Compaq took a hit both in mindshare and sales, as competitors with eight-way Pentium Pro servers instituted a campaign of fear, uncertainty, and doubt against Compaq.

Compaq also faced resistance garnering support for the eight-processor Xeon design. Server development is costly and works on long design cycles. Customers also tend to hold onto servers longer than other PC systems.

"We believed in the architecture, and nobody else did," said Santeler. "We had to convince Intel and everyone else."

Compaq settled on technology from Corollary and pushed Intel to support the chipset that would make eight-way Xeon servers possible. Intel later bought Corollary and the Profusion chipset turned into a co-development effort between the microprocessor giant and Compaq.

Compaq contributed the input/output--or so-called I/O--portion of the design, which affects the speed at which data is transferred between the processors and other components. It was not Compaq's first effort driving the development of this technology. The company developed the Hot-Plug PCI technology commonly found in servers today and has worked with HP and IBM on other similar initiatives, such as PCI-X and Future I/O.

Tony Iams, analyst with D.H. Brown Associates, said I/O is a logical focal point for server manufacturers. "It is the one thing they can offer aside from Intel which can really boost a system's performance."

So confident is Compaq in the technology, it broke ranks last Tuesday and announced its ProLiant 8000 and 8500 eight-way Xeon servers. PC manufacturers typically do not unveil products before Intel makes processor and processor-technology announcements.

Like proud parents, Enrico Pesatori, senior vice president and general manager of the Enterprise Solutions and Services Group, and Mary McDowell, vice president and general manager of the Industry Standard Server Division, showed off Compaq's servers early.

And Pesatori made it clear the new ProLiants would take the central role in Compaq's eBusiness strategy, which today is more driven by high-end Unix servers and mainframes. It is another gamble for Compaq as it increasingly relies on Windows NT running on Intel processors to satisfy the needs of its largest customers.

But the Corollary design is also used by the market at large, evidence that servers are increasingly becoming commodity products.

At least this is the argument from arch rival Dell. "This is standard architecture (Profusion), developed by Intel and Corollary used in our system and Compaq's system," said Kevin Soelberg, director, Dell Server and Storage Marketing (for Dell Americas).

Dell argues one server is not all that different from another and how a company delivers and services systems is what counts in most customers' minds. Dell will use its direct, configure-to-order model to undercut Compaq?s prices and offer systems built exactly the way customers want, said Soelberg.

Also, customers will still look closely at Unix alternatives as well. And as HP learned with Merced, partnering with Intel is no guarantee success.