HP debuts super-skinny servers

By piggybacking on an existing standard from telecommunications companies, Hewlett-Packard will beat its big-name competitors to the market with superthin "bladed" servers.

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HP shows off super-slim server
Mark Hudson, product manager, HP
By piggybacking on an existing standard from telecommunications companies, Hewlett-Packard will beat its big-name competitors to the market with superthin "bladed" servers.

The Palo Alto, Calif., company is taking orders for the systems code-named Powerbar, with volume shipments by early January. The company built the systems around the CompactPCI technology, an existing standard widely used in the telecommunications industry to pack numerous servers into as little space as possible.

Bladed servers stack numerous independent lower-end servers within a single cabinet, vertically like books in a bookshelf or horizontally like plates in a cupboard. By comparison, most of today's low-end servers have only a single computer in one enclosure. The smallest common designs are shaped like pizza boxes, 1.75 inches thick and 19 inches wide, but stacking these by the dozen into racks results in a nightmarish profusion of cables sprouting from the backs of the systems.

HP's blade systems combine within a single cabinet several types of blades--some for processing, some for storage and some for networking. A system with 16 processor blades and 16 storage and input-output blades costs about $45,000, said Brian Cox, entry-level server marketing manager, and Lin Nease, chief technologist for the Intel server line at HP.

The initial systems will ship with Linux from Red Hat, SuSE and Debian, HP said. Windows support is planned for the first half of 2002, and support of other editions of Linux is planned for the second half.

The HP systems expected to be announced Tuesday don't use the latest technology, but rather the older "Coppermine" Pentium III CPU and 440GX chipset to hook the CPU to memory and other subsystems.

Future systems will be more sophisticated, with dual-processor models using the newer "Tualatin" line from Intel and systems using HP's PA-RISC chip coming by midyear.

In 2003, servers with two servers on a single board are expected, Nease said. Also that year, the first blade servers using Intel's new high-end but power-hungry Itanium chips will arrive, Cox said.

Top-tier competitors are eager to make their way into the market. Dell is working on thin blade designs as well as thicker "brick" systems. Compaq had expected its QuickBlade system by the end of this year.

IBM was one of the first to start speaking about its bladed designs, code-named Excalibur. Intel is hoping to fuel the trend with ultra low-power CPUs.

Chip designer Transmeta got an early start in the market with CPUs that consumed less electricity and thus presented less of an overheating problem. But many of the start-ups backing the company are struggling or expired. One problem: Transmeta servers don't support Error Correction Code (ECC), which cuts down on memory errors, or dual-processor configurations used in higher-powered systems.

The "ultradense" server era began dawning earlier this year as companies sought a way to cram more processing power into less floor space to keep up with Internet demands, chiefly serving up Web pages to legions of Internet surfers.

Research firm IDC expects blade servers will blossom in an otherwise grim server market. About 2 million blade servers will ship in 2005 with revenue of about $2.9 billion. While that's only about 10 percent of the market for servers costing less than $100,000, it's quick growth for a segment that IDC doesn't expect to really take off until 2003.

Uses of HP's blade systems will begin with Web page serving and extend to running encrypted "virtual private network" (VPN) connections, authenticating access to networks, screening out intruders, and accelerating encrypted secure e-commerce transactions and e-mail.

Blade servers are leading several trends in the industry. For one, they're encouraging server makers to produce better management software; it's impractical to manage hundreds of servers individually. And one of the promises of bladed servers is that whole gangs of servers could be switched quickly, even automatically, from one task to another as a company's workload demands shift.

In addition, because numerous servers stack within one server seller's enclosure and run that company's management software, those selling the systems hope they'll be able to sell bladed servers in large doses. It's a union of low-end servers and high-end prices.

Because of heat problems and limited space, bladed servers also mean tough engineering problems. Top-tier server makers relish these challenges as a way to separate them from "white-box" manufacturers that bolt together standard parts without needing much expertise.

HP's designs, while requiring considerable skill, do capitalize on existing standards. Indeed, the company hopes its use of CompactPCI will encourage partnerships with other companies--HP blades in others' enclosures, or HP selling its blades in others' enclosures.

"We want the help of the ecosystem," Cox said.

One drawback of HP's CompactPCI design is that the 8-inch-by-10-inch blades and the 22.75-inch-tall enclosure are relatively large. Start-up RLX Technologies, by contrast, sells a 5.25-inch-tall system with 24 bladed servers and a 1.75-inch-tall system with six.

A smaller, 10.5-inch-tall HP system is scheduled for release in the second half of 2002, the company said.

CompactPCI isn't the only connection to the telecommunications realm in the HP models. The systems also are designed to comply with the Network Equipment Building Systems (NEBS) standard. NEBS-compliant servers can withstand earthquakes, high humidity, smoke and dust, and in the case of power outages can run on a direct current from giant battery systems instead of the usual alternating-current power supplies

HP expects NEBS certification in the first half of 2002.