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HP flicks out new blade servers

Is it a blade? Is it a rack server? Hewlett-Packard's new p-class dual-processor server system combines features of both--giving it the oomph to handle a wider variety of tasks.

Hewlett-Packard is expanding on the blade server concept with a new line of dual-processor blades designed for a wider variety of tasks.

The company's ProLiant BL p-class server systems, coming out Monday, are in some ways a cross between standard rack-mounted servers, which are stacked in racks horizontally, like pizza boxes, and blades, even thinner servers, without external cases, which slide into specialized racks vertically, like record albums.

Like rack servers, HP's p-class blades can each contain two processors--instead of one like most current blades--and will be used to run a variety of applications, such as those that control e-mail servers and firewalls. Currently, single-processor blades are used for delivering Web pages and other fairly simple server tasks.

The p-class blades will come with 1.4GHz Pentium III processors, up to 4GB of memory and one or two SCSI hot-plug hard drives.

Versions coming next year will contain four processors per blade and be capable of running databases and other standard back-end applications, said Sally Stevens, director of marketing, density optimized servers, for HP.

The new blades also de-emphasize density for other benefits. While a six-foot rack is designed to hold as many as 280 e-class servers, only eight blades will fit into the smaller 6U rack of the p-class (one U equals 1.75 inches).

The smaller rack allows HP to use hot-pluggable drives, which can be swapped while the server is running, a key feature for many customers. Plus, not many customers had the cooling systems or power supplies to keep a full e-class rack lit, said Stevens.

But, like blades, the new servers require far fewer cables than traditional rack servers. The blades connect to power supplies and networks through the rack.

"We can reduce cabling 80 percent from a 1U server," said Stevens.

The servers can also be fluidly managed and directed toward different tasks. Using the Rapid Deployment Pack, Insight Manager 7 and other software that comes with the system, an administrator can tap different blades or slots for different functions at designated times. An encryption server, for instance, could be preprogrammed to become a Web server and back again, depending on the workload.

Although blades still represent a fairly small chunk of the server market, the design, over time, will likely begin to replace both rack servers and server appliances, specialized boxes built for particular functions.

In the first quarter of 2003, HP will come out with new blades running Intel's Prestonia Xeon processors, and later follow up with four-processor blades running Gallatin Xeon processors. These Xeon chips are based on the Pentium 4 architecture, run at faster speeds and contain more performance-enhancing cache memory than the standard Pentium III or Pentium 4 chips.

HP will also likely insert its own PA-RISC chips in some blades in the future, Stevens added. The p-system servers evolved from the blade project underway at premerger Compaq Computer. HP had its own blades, which are largely being marketed to the telecommunications market. Over time, HP will likely incorporate the PA-RISC into that line.

Blades for the p-series will start at $2,539 while the 6U rack will cost $2,999 and come with eight licenses of HP's management software, one for each slot in the rack.