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Sun seeks to gain from HP stumble

Hewlett-Packard delays one Unix server improvement and backs away from another, and Sun Microsystems responds with a promotion to try to lure customers affected by the situation.

Hewlett-Packard has delayed one Unix server improvement and backed away from another, and rival Sun Microsystems is responding with a promotion to try to lure customers affected by the situation.

The changes, which HP told customers about in October, primarily affect users of the AlphaServer line that HP acquired from Compaq and that Compaq in turn acquired from Digital Equipment Corp. HP is gradually phasing out the AlphaServer line, encouraging customers to move to HP's Integrity line of servers based on Intel's Itanium processor.

In the first slip, HP has delayed by up to a year the time when HP's version of Unix, called HP-UX, will include high-end features from the AlphaServer's version of Unix, called Tru64. The improvements include cluster technology to share services across a group of servers, long a Digital forte. HP-UX 11i v3, the version slated to incorporate the technology, now is scheduled for release in the second half of 2005 rather than by the end of 2004, HP spokesman Jim Dunlap said.

Second, HP decided to cancel the last AlphaServer processor, the EV79, and instead release a faster version of the existing EV7. "As the EV79 development program has progressed, working closely with our CPU chip supplier, it has become clear that the EV79 chip will not meet our expectations for performance or time to market," said Rich Marcello, general manager of HP's business-critical server group, in HP's letter to customers.

The EV7 speedup, called EV7z, is expected to boost performance 14 percent to 16 percent over the EV7, Marcello said in the letter. Terry Shannon, author of the independent Shannon Knows HPC newsletter, said the EV7z is expected to top out at 1.33GHz. The earlier EV79 plan, which would have produced a chip running at 1.4GHz to 1.6GHz, would have meant a performance boost of about 25 percent, he said.

Meanwhile, Sun, the top Unix server seller but a company under fierce competitive pressure, has expanded a promotion called HP Away that offers a zero-percent financing lease to lure HP customers. The program began in July in the United States and was expanded to Europe, and now Sun has expanded it to Asia as well and signed up six new business partners to help customers switch to Sun gear.

"The idea is to get them to move off (AlphaServer products) for roughly the same cost they're paying for maintenance for their existing systems," said Larry Singer, Sun's chief competitive officer.

Sun's approach isn't a surprise. "They're attacking what they see as a huge vulnerability within HP," Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff said. "And it is a huge vulnerability. At the end of the day, the Alpha customers have a migration to go through. It isn't going to be a whole lot less painful staying with HP than going with someone else, whether it's Sun or IBM."

HP countered by saying that customers should be leery of Sun's shifting strategies regarding technology such as support for the Linux operating system or processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

"We believe our customers want a credible, trusted partner and not one that changes its story frequently. Our customers know that HP is being upfront with them and welcome the frankness and honesty and therefore will stay with us," Dunlap said.

Switching away from AlphaServers is a definite possibility, but those seeking better clustering technology on a new system are probably best off waiting for the new version of HP-UX, Shannon said. "You would not get the same features and functionality as what you will get from HP-UX. It's ahead of everybody else," he said.

Clustering wasn't the only new technology coming with HP-UX 11i v3. HP-UX now offers partitioning, in which a server is divided so it can run several operating systems simultaneously, but v3 has a more sophisticated version planned called dynamic repartitioning, in which the sizes of each partition can be changed without shutting down the server.

One customer who'll miss the new feature is Barry Strasnick, chief information officer of CitiStreet, a 401(k) administrator company, who otherwise is a big fan of HP Integrity servers. "I do wish they would be able to do the dynamic repartitioning that you can do with Sun. That's something where HP is a little behind Sun," Strasnick said in an October interview.

Another feature that will slip with v3 is support for 128-processor Itanium servers, Shannon said. HP-UX currently runs on 64-processor Superdome servers.

A second Digital operating system, OpenVMS, also runs on the AlphaServers and is being moved to Itanium. It's still scheduled to arrive in mid-2004.