HP releases long-awaited Intel server

Hewlett-Packard begins selling two important new products, servers with eight Intel Xeon processors that could help recover market share lost to IBM.

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Stephen Shankland
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Hewlett-Packard has begun selling two important new products, servers with eight Intel Xeon processors that could help recover market share lost to IBM.

The new systems, the ProLiant DL760 and DL740, arrived later than HP had hoped to replace an elderly model that Compaq Computer--now merged with HP--introduced in 1999. Since then, IBM was able to muscle in on high-end Intel server turf that Compaq once had largely to itself.

The jockeying is significant as competitors try to capitalize on the growing use of Intel servers not just for lower-end tasks such as storing files or hosting Web sites but also for more demanding jobs such as managing corporate accounting systems.

Although HP has done a remarkable job maintaining its position in the market with an older system, it's hard to overlook the progress IBM has made with its x440 server, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

"Compaq was essentially the only game in town for eight-ways. Now IBM is roughly at parity," Haff said.

IBM has captured the biggest fraction of eight-processor server revenue, according to market researcher IDC, with $87 million worth of eight-processor Intel servers sold in the third quarter of 2002 compared to HP's $84 million. However, HP shipped the largest number of units, with 51 percent share.

"We're very bullish" about the new systems, said Paul Miller, director of HP's platform group for industry-standard servers. "We've been a little bit behind, but we've been seeding the marketplace."

Both of HP's new systems are rack-mounatable, but the DL760 is 12.25 inches tall while the more compact but less expandable DL740 is 7 inches tall, Miller said. The DL760 is available now; the DL740 will be available within 30 days.

A DL740 with 2GB of memory and four 1.5GHz Xeon processors, each with 1MB of high-speed cache memory, costs $24,999. A DL740 with 8GB of memory and eight 2.0GHz Xeon processors, each with 2MB of cache, costs $77,364.

Both new systems have what HP says is a first for the Intel server market, the ability to change out defective memory without shutting down the system. Information is stored redundantly on several memory modules such that an entire memory module can fail and be replaced with no inconvenience for computer users.

IBM and HP have taken different approaches to their higher-end Intel servers. IBM's x440 starts as a four-processor system and can be upgraded to support eight, 12 or 16 processors. HP's, by contrast, supports a maximum of eight processors, with the company steering customers toward more powerful machines with Intel's Itanium processor if more power is required.

While IBM's design allows more expansion, it has a greater dependency on state-of-the-art operating systems.

On the x440, a processor can access the memory associated with its four-processor group faster than it can access the memory located farther away across the computer. But operating system support for this "non-uniform memory access" (NUMA) technology is new for Intel servers. Windows Server 2003, due in April, will support NUMA, while Linux is taking its first steps to support it only now.

In HP's system, however, memory access speeds are identical for every processor--a traditional symmetrical multiprocessor (SMP) design. That means current operating systems, such as Windows 2000, work well on the system.

"I think it's fair to say that for many types of applications, ProLiant is going to be the better choice with the current version of Windows because it's a uniform memory design," Haff said.

A crucial part of the designs of these higher-end systems is a collection of supporting chips called the chipset, which links the main processors together and joins them to the memory and input-output systems. IBM's x440 uses a chipset called the EXA, code-named "Summit," while HP's new DL760 and DL740 use one called the F8. If the processors are the brains of a computer, the chipset is the spinal chord.

Dell Computer, in a distant third place with 8 percent of the market for eight-processor Intel servers, has relied on a 1999 design chipset from Intel. However, the company said in 2002 that it plans to use a new chipset that Intel is building for eight-processor servers.

Meanwhile, Dell has removed its eight-processor PowerEdge 8450 as a standard offering on its Web site, though the system still is for sale.

Compaq began talking about the servers in 2000 and had planned to debut them using Intel processors code-named Foster MP, the first Xeon server built on the Pentium 4 foundation. But those processors had only 512K of high-speed cache memory, and HP decided to wait for another generation, the Gallatin chips introduced last November.

IBM didn't wait, though. Its x440 design compensated for the weak cache. And when the new Gallatin chip came out, IBM immediately supported it.

"IBM was able to steal a march a little bit on ProLiant basically because the x440 design didn't need to wait for the larger cache processors," Haff said.

Although IBM beat HP to market with new Xeons, HP stands by its decision.

"We are very glad we did not launch eight-way products on that platform," Miller said. "We think we did the right thing by waiting for the Gallatins."