Welcome to HP's third Superdome

New "Arches" chipset for Itanium gives performance kick to Superdome, other Unix servers from Hewlett-Packard. Photos: HP's new Superdome server

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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
Hewlett-Packard plans to begin selling a third generation of midrange and high-end Unix servers on Monday, in the first of two performance kicks it will give this year to the systems.

As previously reported, the systems' Itanium processors are connected to memory, networking and other processors using HP's sx2000 "Arches" chipset. Arches boosts performance about 30 percent over the prior sx1000 "Pinnacles"-based servers, according to the Palo Alto, Calif., company.

The Arches chipset is used in the eight-processor Integrity rx7640, the 16-processor rx8640, and the 32-processor or 64-processor Superdome. Those models will be available with the PA-8900 chip by the end of the year, after testing and qualification work is completed, said Manuel Martull, the worldwide marketing manager for HP's Business Critical Servers group. "We gave priority to Itanium," he said.

HP's Superdome

The second boost to the Unix systems is expected in the third quarter, when HP plans to upgrade them with Intel's "Montecito" chip. Montecito is the first version of Itanium to employ dual processing engines, called cores.

In addition, HP will upgrade the lower end of its Integrity line later this year, after Intel releases Montecito. It will replace the earlier zx1 chipset for these machines with a new zx2 chipset. "As soon as Intel announces it, we will be releasing a few weeks after the volume systems with zx2," Martull said.

Switching over
HP is partway through a years-long transition from its own PA-RISC processors to Itanium chips. The PA line ran only HP-UX, the company's version of the Unix operating system, while Itanium can run Windows, Linux and HP's OpenVMS as well. Though HP dominates the Itanium server market, customers also can purchase machines from second-tier server makers, including Unisys, NEC and Fujitsu.

But delays, software incompatibilities and poor initial performance have hobbled the arrival of the Itanium family. That has led IBM and Dell to scrap their Itanium products and has made HP's transition slower than anticipated. The Arches systems were initially designed to debut with Montecito's release, but Intel pushed that date back from late 2005 to the second quarter of 2006.

IBM took over leadership of the $17.5 billion Unix market in 2005, according to research firm IDC. It took in 31.8 percent of revenue, compared with 29.8 percent for HP and 26.2 percent for Sun.

Although Itanium systems don't ship in large quantities compared with models with x86 chips or even with Sun's Sparc processor, the products are steadily maturing. For example, HP-UX on Itanium is now more advanced than on PA-RISC, with the ability to carve out operating systems partitions that use only a fraction of one processor's power, said Nick Van der Zweep, the director of virtualization and Integrity server software.

HP is trying to blur boundaries between machines so that administrators can deal more with a pool of computing power than with several individual machines. In consequence, HP plans to make a significant change to its per-processor server pricing strategy in the third quarter.

Currently, HP sells its servers on the basis of how many processors each has. However, customers can order machines with unused chips and pay only when those extra ones are activated, either temporarily or permanently. In the third quarter, with a feature called Global Instant Capacity, customers will be able to shuffle computing capacity from one server to another and so adjust to changing work requirements without paying a price penalty.

Suppose a customer has two servers, each with 16 active, paid-for processors. "You can turn a CPU off in one machine and on in the other. As long as you stay at 32 CPUs or below, we don't care," Van der Zweep said.

The rx7640 has a starting price of $43,500 for a bare-bones model with two processors and 4GB of memory. The rx8640 starts at $76,500 for a similar configuration.

The new Superdome models are available immediately, but HP wasn't able to supply prices.