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HP goes ultradense with "Powerbar" server

Hewlett-Packard takes its first steps into the "ultradense" server market with a machine code-named Powerbar, and Transmeta's Crusoe chip could find its way into the design.

Hewlett-Packard will take its first steps into the "ultradense" server market in the fourth quarter with a machine code-named Powerbar, and Transmeta's Crusoe chip could find its way into the design.

Ultradense servers, which cram numerous independent computers into the same chassis, are geared toward large companies and Internet service providers that build vast data centers housing thousands of computers.

The first companies to enter the ultradense market--RLX Technologies with its System 324, FiberCycle with its WebBunker, and Amphus with a design on the way--use Transmeta's Crusoe processor. Crusoe acts as a clone of an Intel chip, but because it was designed for portable computers, consumes less power than the average Intel CPU.

IBM and Compaq Computer have rejected use of Transmeta chips in their servers. But it appears Transmeta could find a home in HP's coming Powerbar designs, said Brian Cox, HP's worldwide product manager for hyperdense servers.

Powerbar will use Intel chips and HP's own PA-RISC chips, but, "We're having discussions with other low-power suppliers as well," Cox said. When asked whether that means HP is interested in Transmeta's chips for its servers, Cox said, "I think that's definitely something people should consider a choice. I think they've had a lot of successful design wins in the mobile arena, which was the obvious candidate for a low-power processor."

Though analysts agree that ultradense servers are a booming category, it's not clear whether HP's arrival in the market will be enough to rescue the company's faltering server business.

"It's bad. We don't know when it's going to improve, if ever," said Technology Business Research analyst Humberto Andrade.

HP's server strategy focuses on telecommunications companies and companies such as Internet service providers who run data centers jammed with computers, Andrade said. "The problem is those two markets are in recession" and unlikely to resume spending this or next quarter, he said.

One way Transmeta chips could find a way into HP's server line is if HP chooses to resell other companies' products under its own label. Cox said that while HP is building its own ultradense designs, it also could buy others' designs.

Ed McKernan, director of marketing at Transmeta, said the company talks to all computer makers about using Crusoe chips in laptops and servers, but wouldn't comment on specific discussions.

Transmeta chips use comparatively new technology called code-morphing to emulate Intel chips, so being selected in HP's servers would be a solid endorsement for the young company as it tries to carve away Intel's business. The move also would help diversify Transmeta's customer base, insulating it somewhat from economic slumps that sometimes hit one sector but not another.

Ultradense servers are all the rage as companies seek to increase the amount of processing horsepower in as small a space as possible to keep up with computing demands. Power is a key limit in the design, though, since chips that draw lots of electricity also generate heat and can't be jammed closely together. Intel has followed Transmeta's lead, moving low-power technology from its laptop line to its ultradense server products.

Early ultradense servers are expected to be used for comparatively low-end tasks such as serving up Web pages, but later designs will march up the ladder to handle more sophisticated jobs such as housing databases and running e-commerce shopping carts.

Powerbar and competitors coming soon
Testers will get early Powerbar models this summer, Cox said, with high-volume shipments coming in the fourth quarter. Systems made of two-processor blades, which can handle heavier computing loads, will be released "at or soon after" the single-processor models, he said.

That schedule isn't far off the rest of the industry's time frames. Compaq's QuickBlade servers will arrive in the fourth quarter, including single-processor and dual-processor models, said Paul Miller, director of marketing for Compaq's Intel server group.

IBM is selling RLX servers but will come up with its own designs in mid-2002, said Tom Bradicich, director of architecture and technology at IBM. For its own designs, "We're not looking at Transmeta's Crusoe chip," Bradicich said.

CompactPCI: boon or bane?
HP elected to base its ultradense server on an existing standard, but some competitors call the choice ill-advised.

Processor blades will be plugged into the Powerbar chassis using the CompactPCI technology, an outgrowth of the PCI data pathway used for adding network cards and other equipment to standard PCs. CompactPCI has been used for several years by telecommunications companies, the military and factories.

Indeed, CompactPCI already is used in servers such as Force Computers' Centellis CT 16763 for telecommunications customers.

One advantage to using CompactPCI is the availability of components such as memory connectors and even processor blades from other companies that could be plugged into HP's servers, Cox said.

In May, HP and Intel jointly endorsed the use of CompactPCI, earmarking investment funds to help champion the technology as "a vital standard for next-generation blade computing systems," according to an Intel statement.

"We're fellow travelers with Intel in promoting CompactPCI for blades," Cox said.

But Intel likes other connection methods as well. "We're agnostic on this front," said spokesman Howard High. "Obviously this is an emerging field. Some (computer makers) choose to go with different interconnect routes. Our goal is to work with all of them."

Indeed, Intel is working closely with Compaq on technology for ultradense servers. And Compaq thinks CompactPCI is a lousy idea.

"From an engineering standpoint, we tossed that one over the transom at an early point," Miller said.

CompactPCI's power specifications accommodate middle-of-the road chips, but not low-power or coming high-power ones, Miller said. And it's too slow to keep up with future high-speed networking technology such as gigabit-per-second Ethernet, 10gbps Ethernet or InfiniBand.

IBM will use CompactPCI on low-end ultradense servers, but the more sophisticated models will use an interconnect that IBM is developing itself, a representative said.