Final step next week for HP's Itanium makeover

Company is seen closing in on its plan to move all its high-end server lines onto the Itanium processor.

Stephen Shankland
Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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4 min read
Hewlett-Packard is expected to announce a new line of NonStop servers next week, the final step in its plan to converge all its high-end server lines onto the Itanium processor, CNET News.com has learned.

The NonStop servers are high-end machines used for demanding tasks such as those required by the Nasdaq stock exchange. The machines today use Silicon Graphics' MIPS processors, making them something of an outcast in HP's product lines, but moving to Itanium likely will boost performance and reduce prices.

The first Itanium-based NonStop models are expected to be generally available in June and will use the current "Madison" version of the processor, sources familiar with the situation said. HP will announce the servers June 1, according to another source familiar with the company's plans.


What's new:
Hewlett-Packard is expected to announce a new line of NonStop servers next week, the final step in its plan to converge all its high-end server lines onto the Itanium processor.

Bottom line:
The completion of HP's years-long plan to move NonStop to Itanium could help make the servers more competitive. It also could help HP cut development expenses during a time when its server group is under fierce profitability pressure.

More stories on NonStop

Itanium, a chip family HP helped Intel develop, fell well short of early expectations, but it's a more mainstream hardware and software foundation than MIPS. As a result, HP's years-long plan to move NonStop to Itanium likely will help make the servers more competitive, said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

"I think that will fix a lot of the historical price and price-performance bugaboos," Eunice said. "NonStop will never be cheap--but at least it won't be wholly out of line with the rest of the world."

HP declined to comment for this report.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based printer and computer maker expects a major performance boost out of the Itanium systems. The top-end MIPS-based S88000 introduced in 2004 has about 1.3 times the performance of its predecessor S86000, but HP believes the first Itanium systems will have as much as 2.6 times that performance, according to an HP presentation seen by CNET News.com.

And future versions will doubtless be faster. A second-generation Itanium NonStop model is scheduled to debut in late 2006 using Intel's "Montecito" version of Itanium, which employs dual processing cores and which is due to arrive at the end of 2005, the presentation said.

And a system with Montecito's "Montvale" successor is scheduled for the second half of 2008. Further Itanium NonStop sequels are scheduled for late 2009 and early 2011, the presentation said.

The new line is expected to pick up not just the Itanium processor but also the Integrity brand name that's used for HP's mainstream Itanium

servers. It's expected to be called the Integrity NonStop NS-series. Another component making its way from the mainstream Integrity line to NonStop is the zx1 chipset to link processors to each other, to memory and to all other computing subsystems.

The NonStop machines are the most powerful HP sells. That's because software runs on top of a tightly linked network of numerous smaller machines that collectively make up a NonStop. In addition, processors are linked in pairs that run in lockstep so processing errors can be caught quickly.

"NonStop is in there with (NCR's) Teradata and (IBM's) zSeries as folks who've scaled the tallest peaks, and routinely do so with aplomb," Eunice said. NonStop customers include Sabre Holdings, Barclaycard, Travelocity and Vodafone.

Processor whiplash
The move to Itanium hasn't been easy, however.

The NonStop line has endured some processor hairpin turns in recent years. An initial plan to move from MIPS to Itanium was changed to feature the Alpha processor after Compaq Computer acquired Tandem. Then Compaq decided to cancel the Alpha in 2001, and HP acquired Compaq and engineers dusted off the Itanium plan.

And now the Itanium NonStop systems are arriving a few months late. When HP finalized its Compaq acquisition in 2002, it said it planned to release the systems in 2004.

Then there's the fact that delays and software barriers meant Itanium didn't live up to the early hopes of HP and Intel. The companies expected Itanium to dominate the server market, but the chip missed Intel shipment goals, and both companies now position it just for the high-end server segment.

Itanium is faring better than SGI's MIPS, though, and there's no question that the chip is permitting HP to gradually simplify its complicated processor foundation.

The last new Alpha processor, the EV7z, has been released. The OpenVMS operating system that most often runs on Alpha-based machines today now can run on Itanium, too. And the PA-8900 processor--the final member of HP's PA-RISC processor family that powers the HP 9000 line of Unix servers--is imminent.

In the future, HP will use just two processor families: Itanium for high-end servers, and x86 chips such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron for lower-end systems. The simplification is important for HP as it tries to dramatically cut operating expenses and increase profitability.

HP's NonStop Enterprise Division has for years been led by Pauline Nist, a vice president. In May, however, Martin Fink took over the role in addition to his job as leader of the Open Source and Linux Organization. Nist now leads the Total Customer Experience group for HP's Enterprise Server and Storage division.