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HP, IBM squabble over Intel servers

Hewlett-Packard and Big Blue are sending notes to sales partners in which they deride each other's products in a newly maturing part of the market.

Hewlett-Packard and IBM are squabbling over their Intel-based servers, sending notes to sales partners in which they deride each other's products in a newly maturing part of the market.

The spat concerns eight-processor systems based on Intel's new Xeon MP processors. Such systems are at the vanguard of the battle to use Intel servers to displace Unix servers from Sun Microsystems and others, a battle that has heated up as Intel servers have increased in popularity with corporate customers.

HP acquired the top rank in the Intel server market through its acquisition of Compaq Computer but delayed releasing a new Xeon-based eight-processor product that had been under development at Compaq for years, a design based on a chipset code-named the F8.

In documents sent to sales partners and reviewed by CNET News.com, HP blames the F8 delay on disappointing performance by the Xeon processor and derides a rival IBM system, the Xeon-based x440 "Summit" server, saying that it stumbles when trying to use any more than four processors.

HP said customers are best off sticking with its DL760 server, a product released three years ago but recently upgraded with newer processors and a faster communications subsystem.

IBM, meanwhile, fought back with a memo of its own, defending its systems and criticizing HP-Compaq designers for blaming Intel when the fault is their own.

The exchange is an example of the fierce combat being waged in the Intel server market. IBM's Summit systems are its first Intel servers to use major in-house engineering expertise as opposed to well-packaged components from others. And HP, bolstered by Compaq, is seeking to defend against the steady gains made by Dell Computer. It's also a key time in the market, analysts said.

"The four- and eight-way market has been stagnant to down in the last year, but there are indications that growth is going to return to the eight-way market in the third quarter," IDC analyst Mark Melenovsky said.

HP's note to sales partners puts the blame squarely on the Xeon's shoulders. "In an eight-way server configuration, in our opinion, the first-generation Xeon MP processor is not delivering acceptable performance," it said. Regarding IBM's x440, the HP note said that "scalability"--the ability to effectively use many processors--"will become a major performance factor" when eight or more processors are used.

IBM fired back that HP "cannot deliver competitive eight-way Xeon MP performance." Big Blue said that HP-Compaq is therefore forced to wait for second-generation Xeon MP processors, code-named Gallatin, that will come with more high-speed cache memory built in.

Intel took as neutral a position as possible in the debate.

"We're very happy with the performance the processor is providing our customers," said Intel spokesman Bill Kircos, adding that the Xeon MP is about 30 percent faster than its Pentium III predecessor.

HP didn't respond to requests for comment, but an IBM spokesman stood by his company's memos. Blaming Intel is a "red herring," said IBM spokesman Tim Dallman, adding that the F8 is a "failed chipset."

"They're going to sit on the sidelines in a market where they should be leading," Dallman said.

IBM wins--mostly
Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with research firm Illuminata, awards the technology lead to IBM, based on the company's having built a design that compensates for changes from the older Pentium III Xeon to the new Xeon MP.

Compared with the Pentium III Xeon, the Xeon MP comes with less high-speed cache memory, which responds faster than a computer's main memory, but IBM compensated with a large, 32MB amount of cache outside the processor.

"By externalizing cache, Summit avoids the need to wait for Intel to provide (Xeon MP) follow-ons with decent cache size," Eunice said. "IBM is in a pretty good position."

But the x440 isn't flawless. Its design links four-processor modules--the machine can have as many as four such modules, making it a variable four-, eight-, 12- or 16-way server, depending on the number of modules, and hence chips, used. In a system using more than one module, IBM links the modules and their associated memory using high-speed connections through what it calls the "scalability port." But that port can be a bottleneck, Eunice said.

IBM's statistics show that the x440's performance doesn't increase as much as it should when new processors are added. In preliminary results measuring the performance of the server while running SAP's business software, doubling the processor count from four to eight increases performance only 67 percent. Ideally, performance would increase 100 percent.

HP criticized IBM for not publishing TPC-C performance scores, a measurement audited by the Transaction Performance Council and the most widely monitored measurement of server performance.

"To date, no TPC-C benchmark using a configuration of eight first-generation Xeon MP processors in a single server has been released by any vendor," HP said. "Through rigorous testing and validation, (HP) has seen no compelling performance rationale to support a transition to the new processor generation at this time."

But IBM said its TPC-C benchmark results are ready to go as soon as Microsoft gives the high sign. Though IBM sells the server with Windows 2000, its benchmark uses the twice-delayed and still-unreleased successor Windows .Net server.

.Net Server includes improvements that take advantage of hyper-threading, a feature that emerged with Intel's Xeon and that lets a single CPU act in some ways like two.

Microsoft also is using improvements IBM made to Windows that enable it to work better on systems such as the x440, where memory access speeds vary according to how close the memory is to the processor. This type of computer is called a non-uniform memory access (NUMA) system.

"The only reason IBM has not published leading TPC-C results for eight-way x440 configurations is because of the slip in the schedule for .Net," IBM said in the memo, noting that the Transaction Performance Council requires that systems be available within six months before results may be published. "As soon as we get the green light from Microsoft, we will publish leading eight-way and 16-way results."