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HP has announced a number of enhancements to the HP Integrity NonStop portfolio that are intended to deliver increased capacity, improved performance and better enterprise integration. While analysts offer mixed opinions on the platform, Randy Meyer, director of NonStop product management, strategy and technology at HP, says there is a strong market that is appealing to new customers.

"We’ve continued to invest in this technology," he says, "and you’ll continue to see that happen". We’re seeing success stories from customers and new customers coming aboard, he added.

It was 35 years ago that a group of ex-HP engineers started Tandem Computers and the era of fault-tolerant or fail-safe computing began. Targeted primarily at critical high-end, high-volume transaction processing applications in the financial and telecom industries, the company was eventually bought by Compaq and then ended up back home with HP. Today it is probably best known as being the single biggest proponent of Intel’s Itanium CPU, a chip with a troubled past, and a cloudy future.

Last month Joe Clabby, president of Clabby Analytics, wrote off Itanium in his newsletter. Although conceived in 1989, Itanium didn’t make it to market until 2001 "after substantial delays due to structural problems, processor count challenges, and compiler issues (amongst several other issues),"  he wrote.

The present hasn’t been any kinder, with Intel twice postponing the next build of Itanium, codenamed Tukwila, which is now scheduled to be released sometime in 2010. And, he added, HP Itanium-based server sales are floundering, down 30 percent last quarter.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, offers a somewhat more optimistic view. "Joe takes a dimmer view of Itanium than I do. He’s convinced that the chip is headed to the junk heap due to poor design, weak adoption and x86/64 technologies overtaking it. I’m not wowed by the chip for those same reasons but I think it’ll stick around longer."

King credits the survival and future of Itanium to HP, which owns around 90 percent of the CPU. Itanium has caught on in a few specific niche and geographical markets, particularly high-performance computing and in Japan (which is home to several of the smaller vendors selling Itanium systems). But while King dismisses Itanium with faint praise — "it will never achieve the market penetration that Intel once hoped or the ‘industry standard’ status the company continues to try applying to the chip" — he says "NonStop is a horse of a slightly different color."

NonStop was an "amazing platform" back in the 1990s, but it "fell into a very deep hole" until HP launched the new Itanium-based platform. Unfortunately for HP and Itanium, NonStop’s main competitor, the IBM mainframe, didn’t stand still.

"Unfortunately for HP, System z is hugely more powerful, scalable and flexible than the IBM mainframes NonStop used to compete with. In other words, when the new HP systems are put up against today’s System z10 machines, there is no competition."

Still, there is a good market for the NonStop platform, and HP is bullish about its future, says Meyer.

"HP is committed to Itanium," he says. Intel is doing a good job of leveraging both platforms and there is cross-pollination going on between the Itanium and x86 architectures. "I think will ultimately be good if the customer views it in the long haul."

The new enhancements to the NonStop portfolio include: enhanced performance of complex data center systems spanning a large geographic area and thousands of processors, with NonStop BladeCluster Express 1.2; improved business decision-making by aggregating ‘islands’ of information across an enterprise with NonStop SOAP 4.0, providing seamless integration with open source software such as Spring, Apache Axis2, MyFaces and Hibernate – all common elements of service-oriented architectures (SOA); and increased service levels through simplified software programming, improved application capacity and higher performance with the upgraded NonStop SQL 2.3 database.

While more at home in large enterprises, Meyer says smaller companies are also starting to use the NonStop platform, with systems starting as low as $100,000. It’s especially attractive to resellers with their own applications to layer on top of the platform, he says.

"It’s not so much a pure reseller play, but more ISVs that distribute us as a channel."