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HP to add more muscle to blade servers

The company will offer super-thin "blade" servers with more computing power in coming months, drastically changing the types of jobs the new systems can tackle.

HP will begin offering super-thin "blade" servers with considerably more computing power in coming months, drastically changing the types of jobs the new systems can tackle.

HP's blades, inherited through its acquisition of Compaq Computer, thus far have been single-processor models good for lower-end jobs such as dishing up Web pages. Soon, though, the company will sell a new two-processor model that will be useful for hosting e-mail server software and four-processor systems good for lower-end databases.

It's a big step up for blade servers, entrusting them with more important jobs. And it's a big step for HP, whose competitors Dell Computer, Sun Microsystems and IBM have yet to release first-generation blade products.

Systems with dual Intel Pentium III processors are "imminent," Mary McDowell, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Industry Standard Servers Global Business Unit, said in an interview Friday. Two-processor and four-processor systems with more powerful Xeon processors are expected "early next year," she added.

Blade servers are electronics boards stacked side by side in a single enclosure, like books in a bookshelf. Twenty HP e-Class blades can fit in an enclosure 5.25 inches tall, meaning that a six-foot rack can hold as many as 280 individual servers.

Though the server market is shrinking, analyst firm IDC expects blade servers will account for much of the future growth. And in the first quarter of 2002, blades outsold single-processor servers in pizza box-sized enclosures "1U," or 1.75 inches thick, McDowell said.

One reason blade servers are significant is that they require more management software because, lacking keyboards, video systems and CD-ROM drives, they must be managed from afar. That means they're a means for server companies to sell more software, which typically comes with plumper profit margins than hardware.

About 30 percent to 35 percent of overall ProLiant customers buy HP management software, McDowell said. "But nobody's installing blades without management software. That's a great opportunity," she said.

Blade servers once were directed at service providers--companies such as Exodus that in the Internet mania years were expected to run sprawling data centers hosting all sorts of Internet activities. That market dried up, and now blades are being redirected at corporate customers.

The new servers will displace 1U rack-mounted servers, she said. To fit this task, the systems will come with higher-end features. Among them are dual SCSI hard drives, which are faster than the ATA drives in the e-Class blades and that administrators will be able to remove without shutting down the server. The new blades also will have redundant power plugs so that backup power systems can be used if the primary one fails.

The higher-powered p-Class blades will take up much more space than the lower-end e-Class models. Eight two- or four-processor p-Class blades will fit in a single 10.5-inch thick enclosure, meaning that up to 48 will fit in a single six-foot rack.