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HP thinks big with Superdome servers

The model for Hewlett-Packard's shiny new Superdome Unix server is the decades-old mainframe, the still-powerful anchor of corporate computing.

The model for Hewlett-Packard's shiny new Superdome Unix server is the decades-old mainframe computer, the still-powerful anchor of corporate computing.

HP isn't trying to reinvent the mainframe. The company instead wants to borrow key marketing and technology strategies from big-iron systems.

The company announced the new server line today in New York. As part of the plan, each customer buying the new top-end Unix server will get a dedicated HP support crew instead of a "revolving door" of new personnel who must learn about a customer each time there's a problem, sources familiar with the product said. In addition, the machine initially will be available in six configurations with specific software set up for particular jobs, including e-commerce, customer relationship management, or billing for telecommunications companies.

That level of hand-holding doesn't come cheap, though. The computer alone, without software, has a starting price of $1 million, sources said.

HP has fixed its weakness in sales of low-end Unix systems but still has been "lagging" at the high end, HP chief executive Carly Fiorina said today. Now, though, "on a pure technical basis, we're leapfrogging the competition," Fiorina said. And the servers will vastly increase how closely HP will work with customers, she said, alluding to HP's plans for acquiring 31,500 technology consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Superdome is the flagship of HP's effort to win back leadership from Sun Microsystems in the increasingly prestigious and profitable Unix server market and to keep resurgent IBM at bay. Fiorina unveiled a 32-processor version of the server today in New York, with a 64-processor version to come later.

Superdome is a critical advance for HP, but it must contend with the dominance of Sun and shiny new Unix servers from IBM, Compaq, SGI, NEC and Unisys--not to mention a new top-end Sun machine arriving in early 2001. Unix servers, at home both on the Internet and at the heart of corporate networks, are an increasingly profitable product, and Sun's success has sparked furious development, sales and marketing activity at IBM and HP.

Ann Livermore, president of HP's business customer organization, said the tight bundling of Superdome with services is the kind of thing Sun is unable to do because its services operation does not span the globe, and it's something IBM will be unwilling to do with its Unix servers lest it undermine sales of its S/390 mainframe.

"We've brought the benefits of the mainframe experience" to the Unix server world, Livermore said. "It's something Sun can't do and IBM won't do."

HP has 40 software partners signed up to participate in the preconfigured Superdome packages, with Oracle the premier ally. Oracle, a company many hardware makers have wooed, by no means has an exclusive relationship with HP; the database powerhouse that's benefited from the rise of the Internet has close ties with Sun and others as well.

Sun is a powerful competitor. Its 64-processor E10000 Starfire machine has been on the market for four years, and despite an aging design, the server is doing well. Sun has sold more than 3,000 of the machines so far, 1,000 of those in the past six months, said spokesman Dave Blackburn.

IBM, too, has been fighting to retain its considerable market share and is making gains with its 24-processor S80 Condor machine. SGI and Compaq Computer also have invigorated the market with major new designs in recent months.

Unix servers range from comparatively inexpensive machines to the multimillion-dollar computers at the heart of traditional and Internet companies. While the power of computers using Microsoft Windows and Intel equipment has improved, Unix systems are still seen as superior by many buyers.

The rest of the story
Despite advance word on Superdome's innards, HP still managed to save some information for today's announcement:

• HP is changing payment plans so that customers' payments go up or down depending on how much of the machine's computing capacity is being used. Previously, HP only offered the option to buy a server with unused processors, paying only when a customer needed to fire them up.

• As expected, the server initially will run HP-UX, HP's version of Unix, but HP also said the computer will run Windows and Linux later.

• HP reorganized its sales and support organization to accommodate the new server, Livermore said. For one thing, salesperson compensation will be tied to customer satisfaction and loyalty. For another, a single person will be assigned to oversee each Superdome sale and installation, then hand off responsibilities to a support manager once the server is operational.

• While the ability to accommodate future upgrades to Intel's IA-64 chips was expected, HP detailed the timeline for that new change. Duane Zitzner, president of HP's computing group, said IA will be a Superdome option in the second half of 2002--a few months after Intel expects other servers to arrive with the second-generation "McKinley" IA-64 chip.

Superdome currently comes with HP's PA-RISC 8600 chip. Next year, HP will offer an upgrade to the 8700, Zitzner said, followed by upgrades later to the 8800 and 8900 chips.

IBM doesn't have this dual-chip roadmap, and Sun servers use only its UltraSparc chip family. "With IBM, you're going to have to switch systems, and with Sun, you're going to have to switch vendors," Zitzner said.

The IA-64 lets HP take advantage of the marketing muscle and low costs associated with Intel and Microsoft, along with Intel's chips themselves and Microsoft's Windows 2000, which runs on some 32-processor computers.

However, some analysts are more reserved about the merits of IA-64 because of delays in its development. "Until we see in practice how hot it runs and how expensive it is, it's going to be impossible to gauge whether it was a wise investment or a flubbed investment," said Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice.

And though Superdome can accommodate IA-64 CPUs, software still must undergo radical transformation to take full advantage of the new chips.

Sun, unsurprisingly, has no qualms about its single-chip future, which it argues makes it easier for Sun to design computers and for customers to keep software running on new products. "That's a huge technology disruption that HP is just glossing over," said Chris Kruell, group manager in the system products group. "It is going to be a massive headache."

Intel and HP, the original inventor behind the IA-64 chips, argue that IA-64 will have decades of longevity while today's chip designs will run out of performance. Eunice, though, said new chip designs from Compaq and IBM as show merit but don't require the software to be rewritten.

"We think the folks at Compaq with symmetric multithreading or IBM with multiple on-chip processors both (have) really good designs," Eunice said. "They are, from a software point of view, incremental. They don't require the miraculous invention of new compiler technology."

Split personality
Another new Superdome feature is the ability to split the server into several "partitions," each with its own version of the operating system, a feature pioneered in mainframe computers and popularized on Unix servers by Sun. But HP's partitioning goes to a deeper level, Zitzner said, with partitions defined in hardware that can be further subdivided into software-based "virtual" partitions. In addition, resources such as CPU power or communication bandwidth within each virtual partition can be assigned to specific jobs, he added.

Sun's Kruell counters that Sun's partitioning is in its third generation, and will spread to midrange models with the introduction of new servers based on UltraSparc III chips in coming months.

Partitions enable customers to run test software in one section of the machine while running the production version on another. It also enables those renting access to the machine to divvy up a single system so different customers can use different sections.

Zitzner said the partitioning allows one CPU module to be swapped without restarting the entire computer. In the future, it will be extended so different operating systems can co-exist on the same Superdome machine and so that not even a partition will have to be rebooted to swap out a CPU.