Volume 4, Number 25 -- June 24, 2008

HP Launches NonStop Blade to Chase Mainframes and Unix Apps

Published: June 24, 2008

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

For a lot of complex reasons, mostly having to do with the cost of human engineering and the lack of volume manufacturing economies of scale, fault tolerant computing has never really gone mainstream. But the advance of technology progresses, and the four key suppliers of fault tolerant computers--Hewlett-Packard, Stratus Technologies, NEC, and Marathon Technologies--have consistently lowered the entry price of fault tolerant gear while boosting its capability. Last week, it was HP's turn with its NonStop line.

As we all know, HP has said that it wants to put every conceivable piece of server, storage, PC, and networking equipment onto a blade form factor so it can plug into its BladeSystem blade chassis, under a strategy it announced last year as the "Blade Everything" effort. Now, just because everything is bladed does not mean that HP thinks everything it sells will come in a blade form factor. I don't think, for instance, that there ever will be a blade printer or a blade scanner. (As soon as I say that sentence, I know that someone will come up with a reason why this is a good idea, although I surely cannot see it. . . .) The idea is that any key data center technology that can be put into a blade form factor should be. HP bought a fledgling but very well-engineered blade server product, originally dubbed "QuickBlade," when it acquired Compaq seven years ago, and over time the company has expanded that product line, rolled out a new generation of chasses and half-height blades, storage blades, and adopted multiple processor families, including Intel's Xeon and Itanium processors and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron processors. With these products, HP can sell bladed servers and storage that support Windows, Linux, HP-UX, and OpenVMS platforms, and last week, now NonStop fault tolerant clusters are added to the mix. These are the five key HP platforms.

The NonStop product line came to HP by virtue of a number of acquisitions. Tandem Computer was founded by a bunch of HP engineers in 1974, and was acquired by Compaq in 1997 as it sought to build up its enterprise server business. Through the 1980s, Tandem gave IBM's mainframe business plenty of headaches, and NonStop gear was eventually adopted alongside mainframes at stock exchanges, big banks, insurance companies, and so forth, and eventually IBM was forced to resell Stratus FT gear as well as clustering its mainframes to blunt the Tandem attack. (Both Compaq and Dell were, by the way, big users of Tandem machines to support their PC and server businesses.) Compaq also got some fault-tolerant server expertise when it acquired Digital Equipment a year later, since DEC had very sophisticated clustering and fault tolerant implementations of its VAX and then AlphaServer lines. When HP bought Compaq, it got the Tandem and DEC engineers and the Tandem line as part of the bargain. In the wake of the Compaq acquisition, HP worked to port the Tandem NonStop operating system and database to Itanium-based servers (they ran on MIPS R series RISC processors and homegrown servers since 1991, and custom processors before that)--a feat that was accomplished in June 2005.

While Itanium support is not new, the new NonStop blades have the potential to make NonStop setups more popular in the data centers of the world because of increased performance, denser form factors, and slightly lower prices. According to Randy Meyer, director of the NonStop product line within HP's Business Critical Systems division, the price/performance of NonStop setups based on the new NB50000c blade server will increase by a factor of 2.2 or so, with NonStop nodes based on the blade having roughly twice the processing capacity and delivering configured systems of equal performance to the NS16000 series of Itanium-based NonStop gear at 90 percent of the cost. Compared to the earlier S series generation of NonStop gear (which was based on MIPS chips), the performance of the Itanium blade is about 4.5 times higher, node for node. Equally significantly in these days when data centers are running out of power and space, the bladed NonStop gear can deliver that equivalent performance in about one quarter of the space using the c-Class chasses from HP, and other X64 blades can be plugged into the chasses, too, if customers have mixed workloads. (And what customer doesn't?)

The existing Integrity BL860c blade, launched in February, is the basis of the NonStop blade, and in fact, HP has reimplemented the ServerNet clustering technology that has been at the heart of NonStop clusters for decades so it can fit on a mezzanine card that plugs into this blade. The BL860c has two-sockets, but the NonStop variant only has one CPU socket usable, and it can be configured with one 1.66 GHz Montvale Itanium 9100 with 18 MB of L3 cache memory. Each NB5000c node can support from 8 GB to 48 GB of memory per logical processor, and a massive NonStop setup can support 4,080 logical processors and 8,160 processor cores.

There have been some changes to the NonStop operating system, according to Meyer, so it can make use of multiple cores in each CPU socket and yet mask these changes from higher-level NonStop. In fact, a dual-core "Montvale" Itanium chip looks like one logical processor as far as NonStop is concerned, and when Intel puts out its "Tukwila" quad-core Itaniums late this year and HP gets them into NonStop boxes, they will still look like one logical processor--albeit one with lots more oomph. A NonStop node spans from two to 16 logical CPUs, and each none runs one instance of the NonStop environment. HP has also designed a new ServerNet switch for the Tandem-style clustering, which fits into the c-Class chassis and links the NonStop nodes together. The most important thing is that the C, C++, and Java applications that have been created by NonStop shops to hit the NonStop database will run unchanged on the blades.

The entry price of a NonStop blade configuration is around $300,000 for two NB50000c blades, a c7000 chassis, I/O controllers, and SAS drives on the blades for OS images; this price includes the NonStop operating system, database, middleware, and Eclipse-compatible development tools. Meyer says that the typical entry configuration will be between $600,000 and $700,000 these days with the blade setup, with bigger machines costing into the millions of dollars.

One potential customer for the new blades, by the way, is none other than the NYSE Euronext stock exchanges, which have unplugged a lot of mainframe iron recently and replaced it with a mix of HP Unix and Linux iron. According to Meyer, the NYSE exchange still has somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 processors' worth of NonStop iron inside its trading systems, and it has recently installed more iron, in fact.

Several banks and telcos have been beta testing the NonStop blades, and while HP won't say this, the lower cost and higher performance of these NonStop blades makes it more likely that Unix shops--including HP-UX shops--that are sick of the relatively slow response time of clustered Unix boxes and the complexity of supporting them might opt for NonStop. Ditto for mainframes, the perennial enemy of Tandem clusters since Day One back in 1974. Any real-time or near real-time Unix or mainframe environment is a target for HP's NonStop, and there is no question that there are plenty of margins when the company is charging $150,000 for a configured blade with the hardware being maybe $20,000 of that, there is plenty of room to cut prices.

How does zero dollars sound? That's what new customers to NonStop will have to pay. Under a program called NonStop FREEdom, HP is offering customers new to the NonStop platform the use of a NonStop blade setup for an entire year for free. This deal, which is being offered in conjunction with British IT consultancy Logica, is specifically targeted at mainframe shops, but I would be willing to bet that any AIX, Solaris, or even HP-UX shop who wanted to participate in the deal could get it from HP. You can find out more about the trade-in deal at


Where Is the Mainframe Blade Server?

NYSE Euronext Trades Mainframes and Unix for Linux and X64

HP Puts Out a Four-Socket Itanium Blade Server

HP Chases Data Warehousing Dollars with Tweaked NonStop Servers

HP Taps Fink to Run Business Critical Systems Division

HP Scales Down NonStop Servers to Chase New Customers

NonStop Fault Tolerant Servers Jump to Itanium

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