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HP moves out of pre-Itanium era

Launch of NonStop servers using Intel chip marks final shift away from HP's own PA-RISC processors in full server family.

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 has plugged in the final pieces in its effort to replace its own PA-RISC chip with Intel's Itanium in all its high-end servers.

As expected, HP on Tuesday is modernizing its NonStop models with Itanium, bringing the processor to its full server line. The NonStop move roughly doubles the performance of the high-end server family, which powers the Nasdaq's electronic stock market and Sabre Holdings' airline reservation system.

At the same time, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer and printer maker is introducing Unix servers using the PA-8900, the last of its in-house Precision Architecture processors.

HP is trying to coax customers to use comparable models based on Itanium. The PA-8900 provides about a 15 percent performance boost over its PA-8800 predecessor, which should give customers a little more time to make the shift, said Mark Hudson, a vice president of marketing in HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers group.

The moves help HP simplify development of its server line, an important effort given the fierce profitability pressure on HP's server and storage group. HP server sales have been squeezed between high-end IBM designs and high-volume Dell manufacturing, but the company showed market share gains in the first quarter of 2005.

HP's future processor foundation is based only on Itanium, which the company helped Intel develop, and on x86 processors such as Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron.

The company has already phased out the Alpha processor used in the Unix server line from Compaq. Now NonStop customers have an alternative to models that use Silicon Graphics' MIPS processors.

End of the PA era
HP introduced the Precision Architecture family in 1986, helping to pioneer the reduced instruction set computing (RISC) approach to designing higher-performance processors. Now that lineage is coming to an end.

"It's the last stop. Everybody off the bus," said Kevin Krewell, an analyst and editor in chief of the Microprocessor Report.

But the PA-8900 is barely different from the PA-8800, a comparatively radical design that squeezed dual processing cores onto a single slice of silicon. Both use the same manufacturing process with 130-nanometer features. However, the PA-8900 has a top speed of 1.1GHz to the PA-8800's 1GHz. The biggest difference is that PA-8900 connects to 64MB of cache, or external high-speed memory--twice the capability of the PA-8800.

"Calling it the 8900 is a stretch of the imagination. It's really the 8800 with a small plus after it," Krewell said. "The 8800 was the bang. This was the echo."

Two major RISC families are still under active development for the server market: Power from IBM, and Sparc from Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu. Those competitors have been eagerly pouncing on HP's PA-RISC customers.

HP is introducing the PA-8900 processor across the full HP 9000 Unix server line.

New NonStops
NonStop machines link numerous smaller machines together into a single large system, an approach that's not simple, but that provides high performance and reliability.

The machines have used MIPS processors for years. They used them even before Compaq acquired Tandem, the company that originally designed the server line, in 1997--which means way before HP acquired Compaq in 2002.

The NonStop Enterprise Division is profitable, but HP hopes the Itanium models will help increase revenue, Hudson said.

"We do see this as a business we are expecting to see continued revenue growth in. There is a large installed-base play, but there are also new areas and growth areas we're seeing," he added.

Selling NonStop machines also helps HP sell other servers, services and storage gear. "It is a key tenant in many of our top accounts," Hudson said.

Other changes with the NonStop line: They can use HP's top-end XP12000 storage systems and, like the rest of HP's server lines, can be controlled by HP's Systems Insight Manager software, said Bob Sawyer, marketing manager for the NonStop division.