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HP to sharpen blade with Pentium M

Revisiting the early days of blade servers, Hewlett-Packard will use the Intel processor, designed for mobile computers, in a new slim server expected early in the third quarter.

Revisiting the early days of blade servers, Hewlett-Packard will use Intel's Pentium M processor, designed for mobile computers, in a new slim server expected early in the third quarter.

HP will upgrade its ProLiant BL10e blade server with a 1GHz Pentium M, a processor code-named "Banias" that should boost performance over the current 900MHz ultra-low-voltage Pentium III used in the current product, Sally Stevens, director of blade servers for HP's Industry Standard Server group, said in an interview. The Pentium M comes with 1MB of high-speed cache memory rather than the 512KB in the Pentium III and supports faster double data rate (DDR) memory.

"There's a nice opportunity for enhanced performance," Stevens said.

Keeping momentum in the Intel server market is crucial for HP, which acquired Compaq Computer in 2002, in part for the ProLiant line. HP had the biggest fraction of the $16.4 billion market for servers using Intel or Intel-compatible processors in 2002, but IBM and Dell Computer are gaining, and even Intel-phobic Sun Microsystems has entered the fray with its own Intel servers.

In addition, by the end of April, HP will ship an upgraded dual-processor blade, the BL20p, that includes 3.06GHz Xeon processors instead of the 2.8GHz currently used, Stevens said. The new processor includes a 533MHz front-side bus--the connection between the chip and its memory--compared with the 400MHz predecessor.

The new BL10e harkens back to the earliest days of blade servers, systems that fit side by side into a single chassis with shared gear such as power supplies and network connections. Those first systems, pioneered by start-ups such as RLX Technologies, used technology lifted from laptops to keep power consumption low so servers can be packed densely without overheating.

"This is the low-power-consumption, high-density blade idea redux," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

Those first models were spawned in an era when spending was flush for Internet infrastructure such as the low-end servers that host Web sites. Adjusting to curtailed corporate computing spending for such products, IBM, Dell and HP shifted plans to blades that pack more punch with two and in some cases four of the more powerful Xeon processors. Even RLX now has introduced dual-Xeon blades.

Sun, which specializes in Unix servers, is taking a different approach. Its first blades will house one of Sun's UltraSparc processors. Later models will use Athlon chips from Advanced Micro Devices and possibly other Intel-compatible processors, with dual-processor models planned for both chip families.

Fast enough
The new Banias blade from HP won't outperform Xeon machines, but it likely will outrun the single-processor competition, Eunice said.

"Consider what it's competing against--other Pentium III designs, the even more modestly powered Transmeta Crusoe, or Sun blades running at just 650MHz," Eunice said. "Though it's not going to impress going up against the heavyweight multiprocessor Xeon blades, Pentium M fits pretty nicely among the blade crowd."

IBM plans single-processor blade models, Intel server Chief Technology Officer Tom Bradicich told in March, but an IBM representative said Friday that those models will use Xeon processors, not the Pentium M. Processors that consume less power is an option in the future, but customers aren't asking for it now, and Big Blue is currently happy with Xeon's balance of price and performance.

Dell declined to comment on its plans.

Low-end uniprocessor blades are still good for many network tasks, such as handing out Internet addresses to PCs as they log onto a network, serving up Web pages or directing Web surfers' computers to the proper addresses as they browse the Internet, said Paul Miller, director of platforms for HP's Industry Standard Server group.

ProLiant BL10e blade server Some early blades built with laptop technology, including those using laptop processors from Transmeta, were missing one feature important feature demanded in the server world: error-correcting code that can fix some occasional mix-ups when ones and zeros are being transmitted on and off the chip. Newer blades fix this problem.

HP has shipped about 20,000 blades since January 2002, when the BL10e was launched. Roughly two-thirds of those were BL10e models, but now that the dual-processor BL20p and four-processor BL40p are shipping, some momentum is shifting to the higher-end models.

More than 50 percent of blades are shipping with an optional network switch embedded, Stevens said, with a higher rate for the two- and four-processor machines. And more than 80 percent are using HP's Remote Deployment Pack, a utility that makes it easier to install software on large numbers of servers.

IBM plans to have Unix blades using its Power processors for the second half of 2003, and HP is considering a similar Unix move with Intel's 64-bit Itanium chips.

"We're still looking at when the right time is to introduce that architecture," Miller said. "We think we're on a very strong path to do this." Key to making the move will be further customer demand and unified software management tools so that Itanium blades and 32-bit Intel blades can coexist easily in the same chassis, he said.