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One of the issues facing Hewlett-Packard’s high-end server business is that it is being forced to fight a two-front war.

The company’s Alpha and HP9000 series servers, which are equipped with 64-bit processors, are competing with the likes of IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc. in the Unix space, plus emerging 64-bit x86 architectures that run Linux and Windows from IBM, Sun and Dell Inc.

“The market challenges that are in place right now for HP are trying to compete with Dell in the commodity market while also filling out the mix to compete in the full-service high-end [market] with IBM,” said Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.

Hewlett-Packard Co. this week at its HP World conference in Chicago will unveil more programs and technologies designed to ease users of its high-end servers onto its Integrity line of servers, which use Intel Corp.’s 64-bit Itanium processor. But HP faces some challenges—new and old—as it tries to incorporate all of its pure 64-bit systems under the Integrity umbrella.

Most notably, the Palo Alto, Calif., company must address the introduction of 64-bit extensions to x86 chips, IBM’s rollout of its Power5 platform earlier this year and Sun’s aggressive courting of HP’s high-end users with its HP Away program, a strategy that the Santa Clara, Calif., company is expanding.

HP officials are confident that their plan will pay off. The trick, though, will be how HP moves it forward in light of the rapid changes around 64-bit computing over the past year. At this time in 2003, Itanium was pretty much the only 64-bit game in town for Intel users. Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s Opteron processor, which can run 32-bit and 64-bit applications, was new on the market, with only IBM offering a system based on the chip.

Now, said Vernon Turner, an analyst with International Data Corp., the landscape has shifted. Opteron is more widely available, and Intel is shipping its Nocona processor, which is a 32-bit Xeon chip that also has 64-bit extensions.

“Up until the [first] quarter, they were starting to make remarkable momentum in shipping Itanium,” said Turner, in Framingham, Mass. In the first quarter, Itanium shipments totaled $270 million; HP accounted for $176 million of that, he said.

“The challenge that HP has now is how to keep that momentum,” Turner said. “In the second quarter, HP unveiled their Opteron systems [and] Intel brought out their 64-bit extensions. Those are two options [potential 64-bit users] have now that they didn’t have before.”

HP’s decision to standardize on Itanium dates back before the company’s 2002 purchase of Compaq Computer Corp., which brought with it such server lines as Alpha and NonStop. Already, HP has stopped selling new e3000 systems and has laid out plans to phase out the other high-end systems. The last new Alpha chip is rolling out this week, and the company will stop selling new AlphaServers next year. Support for the systems will run through 2011.

To read about HP’s move to offer Itanium-powered blades, click here.

Similarly, the PA8900 chip, to be released in 2005, is the last PA-RISC processor on HP’s roadmap. The following year, HP will release in-box upgrades of the HP9000 systems and their chip set to take further advantage of the latest Itanium processors in that time frame, according to a spokeswoman. She added that HP has not yet said when the company will end support of the PA-RISC systems.

In the meantime, HP continues to bring out new technology and services designed to more closely align the Alpha and PA-RISC systems with Itanium. At HP World, the company will unveil a number of moves designed to “significantly enhance our install base’s capability to bring Integrity into their environment,” said Mary Ellen Lewandowski, product manager for HP-UX.

In October, HP will upgrade its HP9000 systems with HP-UX11i version 2, which means there will be a common operating system for both Itanium and PA-RISC servers, Lewandowski said. The operating system has been offered on the Integrity systems since October 2003. Now, both architectures will share a common OS, enabling PA-RISC users to more easily introduce Itanium systems into their data centers since both platforms share the same operating features, from patch management to updates to server install. In addition, it will enable administrators to create failover capabilities between the two platforms.

With the new operating system, HP9000 systems will be able to scale to 128 processors and will see performance gains of 15 to 25 percent, Lewandowski said.

HP also is enhancing the performance of its AlphaServer systems with faster processors, cranking up the speed of the EV7z, or GS1280, to 1.3GHz, and the ES47/80, or EV7, to 1.15GHz.

Next Page: Bringing full virtualization.

In addition, HP also is growing its Virtual Server Environment, or VSE, beyond HP-UX to include Linux, said Nick van der Zweep, director of utility computing in HP’s Enterprise Systems Group. The move means that with the new Multi-OS VSE, HP will now be able to offer the virtualization and utility computing capabilities—such as partitioning, availability, utility pricing and management via its Global Workload Manager software—to its customers running Linux on its Integrity systems. HP also is working to bring full virtualization capabilities to Microsoft Corp.’s Windows environment, van der Zweep said.

HP and IBM are mapping their Linux migration plans. Click here to read more.

The new version of VSE also will bring sub-CPU virtualization and dynamic resource allocation to the Integrity systems. Workloads can be assigned to fractions of a CPU, van der Zweep said.

In addition, HP will sell standard and mission-critical versions of VSE, with the mission-critical suite offering continuous availability.

All of these are designed to keep HP server customers with the company, or to bring in those looking for RISC/Unix alternatives—and officials say it’s working. For example, Lewandowski said a recent internal poll of 600 Alpha customers indicated that 98 percent are still buying systems from HP—either AlphaServers, Integrity or ProLiants—and that spending volume also has increased.

But a poll of 350 HP server customers by Interex, the HP user group sponsoring HP World, indicated some hesitation. Sixty-seven percent said HP’s roadmap and product offerings over the past two years addressed core concerns of its customers, and 88 percent said they were satisfied with HP’s products, support and services during that timeframe.

But only 16 percent said they intended to migrate to Itanium, and 9 percent already had started the migration. Forty-two percent said they had no plans to migrate in the next 18 months. In addition, 36 percent said they would consider an “in-between” system—ones that ran both 32-bit and 64-bit applications—rather than migrate directly to Itanium, although another 47 percent disagreed.

HP’s revenue in servers and storage declined in its third fiscal quarter. Click here to read more.

The poll also indicated that users were deploying Xeon and PA-RISC systems two to three times more over the past year than Itanium systems, and that Opteron sales were creeping up on Itanium.

Michael McLaughlin, an analyst with Gartner Inc., said HP’s 64-bit users eventually will fall into one of two categories—those who already use another 64-bit platform, or who need 64-bit computing now, and will lean toward Itanium; and those whose 64-bit demands were less and could look at Opteron or Intel’s Nocona Xeon chips.

Sixty-four bit extensions “allow people who were on the fence to go directly to 64[-bit],” said McLaughlin, in San Jose, Calif. “It allows them to port over time to 64-bit.”

But Gartner also sees Itanium shipments continuing to grow, he said. In the first quarter this year, 6,300 Itanium-based systems were shipped. In the first quarter in 2005, that number should double to between 12,000 and 13,000, McLaughlin said.

Several customers said they were comfortable with HP’s Itanium roadmap, enough so to make the move from other RISC systems to HP.

The Weather Channel Cos. jumped off Sun’s Solaris platform and onto HP’s Integrity systems early this year. Kevin Gungiah, director of systems administration, said the key for his company was reducing the maintenance costs of the servers; those costs are about one-tenth of what The Weather Channel was paying previously, he said.

The company, based in Atlanta, is replacing 138 RISC processors with 42 Itanium chips in 19 two- and four-way Integrity systems, which also is improving performance and utilization while driving down licensing costs. The systems run Red Hat Inc. Linux 2.1 and 3.0.

When The Weather Channel was looking to migrate its infrastructure, Opteron was still new, and Intel had yet to release the 64-bit extensions for its Xeon processors, Gungiah said. That, combined with Itanium’s availability and HP’s commitment to it, persuaded the company to move to Integrity systems.

“HP had a strong product roadmap with Itanium,” Gungiah said. “Opteron was just under way at the time.”

The Weather Channel has spent about $200,000 in the first phase of the migration, and based on the performance of the Itanium-base systems, the second phase also will involve replacing RISC-based servers with Integrity systems, Gungiah said.

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