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HP to debut 8-processor server

HP will beat Compaq to market, but analysts say there's no demand for the high-end product.

When Hewlett-Packard releases its first eight-processor Intel-based server later this year, it will beat rival Compaq to market by almost a year, but tepid customer demand could make the point moot.

Targeted as the ultimate in brawny Intel corporate servers, eight-processor machines won't likely find an audience until late 1998 or 1999, after information technology (IT) departments become comfortable with the performance of Windows NT in high-end multiprocessing environments, according to observers. IT managers are also expected to wait until there has been greater acceptance of eight-way architectures among the major server vendors, including Compaq.

HP will announce, and try to ship, an eight-way NetServer later this year, said Brian Cox, worldwide product manager for high-end systems at HP. The NetServer will contain eight Pentium Pro processors and 8GB maximum memory, among other enhancements. Prototypes are already running at customer sites. HP says the server will be upgradeable to Intel's next-generation "Deschutes" Pentium II processor, which will be more adept at handling multiprocessing than the current Pentium II.

A release this year will give HP a jump on Compaq, the world's largest server vendor. "By the time they get out their first generation, we will be on our second generation," Cox noted. Compaq said it will release its first ProLiant eight-way server in the second half of 1998, based on technology from Corollary.

But despite HP's expectation of demand, analysts have their doubts.

"This is a solution looking for a problem. I don't see any demand at all for eight-way servers, especially running NT," said Jon Oltsik, senior analyst at Forrester. "First, you need an OS that can handle eight processors, and I'm assuming that that is NT 5.0. Then you need some cooking time so that IT managers can comfortably port their applications."

Microsoft has already released an Enterprise Edition of NT that's purportedly capable of making use of eight processors, but the product was only released late last month. NT 4.0, according to many, can only take effective advantage of four processors at once in conventional servers--and even scaling up from two processors to four on NT is problematic so far as cost-performance benefits go.

"It will be two to three years before we see the shrink-wrapped OSes [operating systems] that will handle eight-way processing," added Susan Frankle, server analyst with International Data Corporation.

Cox said that HP's decision to come out with an eight-way server now, as opposed to later, arose from customer demand. Corporations are already trying to consolidate their multiple one- and two-processor NT servers into larger servers. Further, customers are becoming more comfortable with NT in corporate high-end computing environments. "They are finally seeing the horsepower and scalability that match RISC/Unix servers," he said.

The new NetServer will essentially double the capacity of current models. Rather than four processors and 4GB memory, the new NetServer will have a capacity for eight processors and 8GB RAM. Four of the servers will be able to fit in a standard rack-mount design, Cox added.

Interestingly, HP will probably not initially be using the Profusion architecture from Corollary, which many believe will become the standard architecture for eight-way servers.

The first HP eight-way server will use Pentium Pro chips. A spokeswoman at Corollary, however, said that there is only a slim chance that the company will ever release eight-way chipsets or boards that work with Pentium Pro.

"It [the Pentium Pro] is becoming an end-of-life product," said Gail Michelsen, a Corollary spokesman.

Most of the company's development is going into chipsets for the Deschutes Pentium II processor. Deschutes, scheduled for release in mid-1998, will become Intel's main high-end server offering. Intel made an offer to buy Corollary earlier this year.

Both NCR and Unisys offer multiprocessor Intel servers which can use eight and ten processors, respectively.