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HP adds muscle to Itanium servers

Two server components are expected to vastly increase the power of the company's Itanium servers, making them on par with the machines using processors of HP's own design.

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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Stephen Shankland
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Hewlett-Packard on Tuesday will announce two server components that will vastly increase the power of the company's Itanium servers, making them on par with the machines using processors of the company's own design.

HP will announce at the Intel Developer Forum the sx1000 chipset, which will let HP build machines with eight to 64 Itanium processors. It also will announce a packaging technology called mx2 that will let the company plug two Itaniums into a single socket, giving a powerful upgrade option and enabling mammoth machines with as many as 128 processors.

The sx1000, code-named Pinnacles, will begin shipping in servers in mid-2003, said Jean-Jacque Ozil, director of the Itanium program for HP's Business Critical Systems Group. The mx2 technology, code-named Hondo, is due in the first quarter of 2004, he said.

The products show that HP, while reliant on Intel for the Itanium processor itself, is able to control much of the rest of its high-end computing destiny.

While HP plans to phase out its own PA-RISC processor line two generations from now, the company's two main rivals--IBM and Sun Microsystems--have their own high-end processor lines and therefore have been insulated against the problems Itanium has had getting to market.

"Certainly HP has a great dependency on Intel for Itanium processor family delivery. They're probably pretty smart not to create yet more dependences," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

At a keynote address Thursday in San Jose, Calif., Scott Stallard, head of HP's Business Critical Server Group, and Mike Fister, senior vice president of Intel's Enterprise Platforms Group, will demonstrate a server with the sx1000 chipset simultaneously running Windows, Linux and HP's version of Unix, called HP-UX, HP said.

Faced with Itanium's sluggish emergence, HP extended its PA-RISC lifespan several generations. The second-to-last model, called PA-8800 and code-named Mako, will arrive in servers shipping in the first quarter of 2004, Ozil said.

Chipsets--the chips that join processors to each other, to memory and to input-output systems--essentially are the spinal cord of a computer. They're secondary in importance only to the central processors themselves in a computer design.

The sx1000 chipset will let HP build servers with 64 sockets that accommodate either Itanium or PA-RISC chips. HP's technology, though, will let the systems actually house 128 processors.

The PA-8800 is a "dual-core" design that includes two processors on a single slice of silicon. With Itaniums, the mx2 packaging provides the way to let two chips share one socket.

HP's servers can be subdivided into many independent machines, each with its own operating system. Itanium versions of Windows, Linux, HP-UX and HP's venerable OpenVMS will be able to run simultaneously in different partitions, Ozil said.

The smallest system HP will build around the sx1000 will be an eight-socket successor to HP's current rp7400 system due midyear, said Mark Woods, the product manager for the sx1000 and mx2. The sx1000-based Superdome successor is due in the latter half of 2003 along with the third-generation "Madison" version of Itanium. (In computer planning circles, "midyear" can extend to as late as the end of September.)

Uncertain future
HP came up with the idea behind Itanium in the 1988 and in the 1990s signed a partnership under which Intel was to build and help design the chip family. The Intel partnership was designed so the Itanium family would be widely used, attracting widespread support from software companies and computer makers and not being consigned to the high-end boutique niche that HP's own PA-RISC chip family occupy.

The Itanium family has had a hard time making its way into the world. Early models were delayed several times, and its adoption has been slowed by the fact that the overall Itanium design forces software companies to profoundly rework products that had been tailored for Intel's Pentium and Xeon processors.

But things are looking up as the hardware and software support gradually grows up. The second-generation Itanium 2 model, code-named McKinley, showed strong performance and last week was lauded as the best server processor by influential chip-watchers at the Microprocessor Report.

It's still not clear, though, whether Itanium will achieve its promise as a widely used processor. Two loud backers in the server community, Compaq Computer and HP, have merged. Sun, the top Unix server company, parted ways with Intel over Itanium and plugs its own UltraSparc chip line.

Unisys, NEC, SGI, Fujitsu and IBM all plan high-end Itanium servers, but the first four of those don't occupy the first rank among server makers, and IBM's grander plans are built around its Power5 processor and its sequels. In a sign of its priorities, IBM recently transferred a handful of programmers working on Linux for Itanium to work on Linux for Power, spokesman Ron Favali said.

In the effort to build Itanium servers, "HP is leading, but they're sort of in a race by themselves," Haff said.

And while there have been troubles getting Itanium to market, Intel is a powerful ally with deep manufacturing expertise. Many expect Intel to be one of the chip manufacturers that won't be squeezed out of the market as chip building becomes ever more complicated and expensive.

Intel's track record hasn't been as good when it comes to chipsets, though, and HP was wise not to hand that element of computer design off as well, Haff said.

"They (HP) basically are doing all their own chipsets. They're not dependent on Intel to deliver chipsets, which is a real smart move on HP's part," Haff said. Intel has had a spotty record delivering chipsets and most Intel servers today use chipsets from Broadcom subsidiary ServerWorks. And Intel's latest high-end chipset, the Profusion product that permitted the first mainstream eight-processor Intel servers was late to market.

The mx2 packaging will include two Itanium 2 processors and 32MB of high-speed cache memory that compensates for the fact that two chips must share the same connections to the rest of the server. It will be available as an upgrade to existing servers, HP said.

However, the mx2 technology has some tradeoffs. To make sure the two-chip package doesn't consume more power than a single chip, HP will include technology that can throttle the chip speeds down so they don't consume as much electricity or produce as much waste heat.

And its possible HP will use Itanium processors with smaller amounts of onboard cache, said Haff, noting that the mx2's own cache could counterbalance that weakness.

Even with the strong push toward Itanium, Ozil predicted HP Itanium servers would outship PA-RISC servers in 2005.

Haff was more guarded. "I would think it would be at least that long," he said. "These things take a long time to happen."