HP turns ProLiant up to 8

After a long hiatus, Hewlett-Packard re-enters the 8-socket x86 server space.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
4 min read

With the ProLiant DL785 G5 Server, Hewlett-Packard has re-entered the 8-socket x86 server space. This system has twice the computing headroom of the quad-processor servers that are generally considered at the top end of the volume or so-called commodity server space.

HP isn't new to this market segment. In 1997, Intel bought a company by the name of Corollary that was in the process of developing a chipset that effectively "glued together" two standard quad-processor x86 busses into a single 8-way symmetrical multiprocessor (SMP). Intel not only completed development, it also gave the chipset legitimacy by giving it an Intel blaze. Then Microsoft provided the last major missing piece with Windows 2000, an OS that not only showed real progress in reliability and scalability over its predecessors, but also lent credibility to Microsoft's efforts to be perceived as a serious OS vendor for serious servers.

ProLiant, initially as a Compaq server brand and then after its acquisition by HP, used this chipset and its successors for a succession of server products--even after Intel decided to stop contributing to further development. (Intel had, at various points, planned to do a Xeon version of Itanium's 870 chipset, but this never ended up happening.) Compaq's own version, the "ProLiant F8" chipset, adapted Profusion for the architecture and bus speeds associated with newer Intel processors, but did not fundamentally alter the design. (Subscribers can read about more of the historical background here.)

However, HP eventually decided to pull the plug on in-house development of 8-way chipsets for Xeon. I've broached the question "Why?" with HP executives on a number of occasions over the past few years and their responses have been pretty consistent. They've boiled down to two basic rationales:

  • The size of the 8-socket market does not justify the expense associated with custom chipset development.
  • To the degree that there's a demand for larger ProLiants, it's mostly from customers wanting to run larger Microsoft SQL Server databases and associated enterprise applications--and those needs can be met by Windows running on HP Integrity (Itanium-based) servers.

So what's changed to bring ProLiant back into this space? From my perspective, there's probably not one single reason but rather a few different factors that collectively served the needle from "No" to "Yes."

It's easier. Rather than using Intel processors, the ProLiant DL785 G5 uses Advanced Micro Devices Opteron "Barcelona" quad-core processors. Unlike Xeons, the AMD processors can support up to 8-socket servers without the use of special server vendor-developed chips. A lot of effort (and therefore money) still goes into designing, qualifying, and supporting a system in this class. However, the costs associated with primarily integrating existing in-house and third-party components and technologies are still much less than if bespoke chipset design is added to the mix.

The market is larger. Dual-socket servers still make up the bulk of server unit sales. However, server virtualization, in particular, has kicked demand for larger boxes, which once seemed to be on an inevitable slide, up a notch. Server virtualization allows as many workloads (more or less) to run on a system as processor, memory, and I/O capacity can support. Given this, many users are starting to think that they're better off consolidating onto larger servers than smaller ones. This reduces the number of physical boxes to manage. In addition, larger servers often come with a more sophisticated array of reliability and management features. The market for scale-up x86 servers isn't going away either--for reasons including the increasing sophistication of Microsoft SQL Server or the growth of Solaris on x86.

Integrity is only a partial solution. From HP's perspective, the "buy Itanium" message was always logical enough. Most of the critical high-end Windows applications were available and Integrity, after all, was specifically optimized for that space. It's a good story, but the reality is that a lot of Windows customers don't want to support multiple processor architectures in their environments--even if the software is (mostly) the same. 

As a final point, the HP of today is a tightly managed and highly measured organization. And ProLiant is clearly one of the growth stars. Thus, it's not hard to imagine that politely leaving high-end Windows opportunities to Integrity came to be regarded as sub-optimal from the perspective of HP as a whole.

Whatever the precise balance of reasons, HP is back in the 8-socket Xeon game. It's a space that HP has largely ceded to IBM's X4 designs. Now HP is re-engaging aggressively as they did with blades and as they've done across so much of the x86 space.