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Compaq showcases new server tricks

HP may have beat it to the "blade" server market, but Compaq isn't worried. It's focusing on software improvements as a major part of its new server line.

Compaq Computer's super-thin "blade" servers will begin shipping in early 2002, yet the computer maker plans to focus attention on some software improvements available for the product line.

Compaq is preparing several blade servers to be marketed under the name ProLiant BL. One model is a cabinet 5.25 inches tall--"3U," or rack units, in the parlance of those who bolt servers into six-foot tall racks--containing 14 "blades" arranged like books on a bookshelf.

A "6U" model for higher-end tasks will be 10.5 inches tall and hold two-processor blades, said Mary McDowell, general manager of Compaq's Intel server group.

Compaq later also plans a four-processor model, said McDowell, adding that systems based on Intel's high-end Itanium chip still are years away.

Bladed servers allow administrators to pack more computing power into a given amount of floor space. A handful of start-ups, some of them already extinct, got an early start on the market, but now major companies such as IBM, Dell, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard are muscling in.

Compaq is touting several improvements. Automated "provisioning" software will let administrators install programs over a network and check if servers are up-to-date with the latest bug fixes. Another program will let administrators change what groups of servers are doing to adjust to changing work load demands.

Sun Microsystems, behind its Intel server rivals in the blade market, also is working on software to make managing large groups of servers easier.

The HP-Compaq connection
HP--which plans to buy Compaq in a multibillion-dollar deal--once trailed the company in the blade market, but later gained ground by taking advantage of an existing technology called CompactPCI. This shift pushed HP ahead of many other server makers in the race for thinner, faster servers.

Early in the year, HP looked to be the last major server company to get its blade strategy up and running, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice. Now, though, "They're first to market. That's pretty sweet."

Where HP chose CompactPCI, Compaq decided against it. The basic problem, McDowell said, is that the design doesn't have enough data transfer speed to link together different blades within the same enclosure.

The point could become moot, however, if HP succeeds in its bid to acquire Compaq. The companies won't comment on the prospects of their product lines, but outsiders believe Compaq's more successful ProLiant server line likely will win out over HP's comparatively weak NetServer division.