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Volume 19, Number 3 -- January 18, 2010

Microsoft, HP Talk Up Frontline Integrated Systems

Published: January 18, 2010

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Everybody wants to have an AS/400 to sell--except, perhaps, IBM. I mean a conceptual AS/400, of course, not literally a machine running OS/400, DB2/400, and RPG/400. Last week, to some fanfare and more than a little confusion, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft said they would be tag teaming to create an integrated set of IT systems under a partnership called Frontline.

Forget that this is also the name of a hard-hitting newscast, or the insecticide that you are too wary of to put on the back of your dog or cat to get rid of fleas and ticks. HP and Microsoft wanted to make it clear to everyone that they were dead serious about putting an integrated set of Windows platforms together to sell against the likes of Cisco Systems and its Acadia partners, VMware and its parent, disk array maker and now software player (no longer a wannabee thanks to acquisition after acquisition) EMC. Those three, you will remember, have cooked up a set of prefabbed virtualized server/storage/network configurations called Vblocks that have everything but operating systems and application software.

And HP and Microsoft, while not saying so, are also keen on positioning their hard and soft wares against whatever Oracle cooks up and bolts together once it finally prevails against the European Union's antitrust commission and the $7.4 billion acquisition of Sun Microsystems is approved. No one else wants Sun, so as long as Oracle did a little, er, ring kissing for the EU, showing it would not bury and kill MySQL, the open source database that hails from Europe that Oracle will control--if anyone can be said to control an open source project and its code--once it acquires Sun, there is no reason at all to believe that the deal will not be approved and consummated by the end of this month.

IBM, as you well know, has decades of experience putting together integrated systems, and some pretty damned good ones, too. The System/38 of 1979 and the AS/400s of 1988 and 1995 were particularly good examples, giving small and medium businesses cutting-edge technology in a form that their relatively non-techie personnel (at least compared to the people operating mainframe and then Unix systems) could make use of and thrive. If IBM has forgotten a lot about the AS/400 in the past decade, HP and Microsoft, the Cisco/VMware/EMC triumvirate, and Oracle have picked up a few lessons.

Microsoft and HP were pretty vague about exactly what they would be delivering as part of the Frontline partnership, which spans three years and which will have an incremental $250 million of investment from the two parties to create, market, and sell the Frontline integrated IT stacks both directly and through the channel. The two companies have committed 11,000 people to the product, and according to Dave Donatelli, the newly anointed general manager of HP's Enterprise Storage, Servers, and Networking Group, there will be 32,000 channel partners that will be soon trained to peddle the Windows systems.

While Mark Hurd, HP's president, chief executive officer, and chairman said that he didn't want people to get the impression that this was "just another press release" from Microsoft and HP, the two companies did a poor job saying exactly what a Frontline system was. And the reason, although neither Hurd nor Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, would admit this, the Frontline announcement was not fully cooked when they let it go last week. If it was, there would have been rumors about it on the street ahead of the launch and HP/Microsoft would have hit the street with very precise configurations and prices. Like, for instance, the Acadia partnership between Cisco, VMware, and EMC did in November when they launched the Vblock virtualized x64 systems. Like Oracle will no doubt do about 35 seconds after the Sun deal closes. Like IBM had better do with System x/BladeCenter and Power Systems machines, just to remind everyone that it is an integrated systems player and, in fact, the last remaining integrated system player of consequence.

Hurd also said that he didn't want customers and investors to think that the Frontline partnership was "a reaction to anything," but rather this was something that HP and Microsoft had been discussing for years and last April they "decided to make a go of it." It is no coincidence that Cisco launched its "California" Unified Computing System blade servers, with their converged server and network storage and their integrated virtualization (vSphere 4.0 from VMware), system management (UCS Manager Cisco), and application management (BladeLogic from BMC Software) in March, that IBM was in talks to buy Sun then, and then suddenly Oracle swooped in an took ahold of Sun, talking about how it, too, was going to build easy-to-user, cheap-to-support integrated systems.

Sound familiar, anyone?

As best as I can figure, the Frontline stacks will also sport HP's ProLiant (X64) and Integrity (Itanium) servers, StorageWorks disk and tape storage, ProCurve switches, and Microsoft's Dynamics ERP software. The servers will run Windows operating systems, use Hyper-V server virtualization and System Center (Microsoft) and System Insight Manager (HP) management tools. SQL Server databases and Exchange Server email/groupware servers also play a role, and according to Hurd, the first Frontline product will be a preconfigured SQL Server machine, very likely competing directly against the Exadata parallel database monster that Oracle and Sun launched last summer as a replacement to a prior Oracle-HP machine. (But Oracle is still a "very important partner" to HP, Hurd said, in case you forgot that Oracle databases rule the Unix market and Oracle is the number two supplier of enterprise application software in the world.)

Not reactionary, indeed.

If I wasn't laughing at this point in the conference call that Hurd and Ballmer hosted to explain (well, not really) the Frontline products, I nearly spit my coffee out through my nose when someone asked what Microsoft's integrated system plans were with Dell and IBM. Ballmer ignored Dell, and then said this: "We don't have a lot going on with IBM, so let me set the record straight on that," and he was laughing as he said it, and continued to snicker when he added, "We're going to work with the guys that HP competes with and HP is going to work with the guys that we compete with."

That sounds like a pretty strong partnership between IBM and Microsoft right there. I wouldn't could on that Windows Server 2008 port to Power7 chips any time soon. And maybe not even Power processors for the next generation of Xbox machines, which would dent, but certainly not destroy, IBM's Power chip business.

On last thing: As part of the Frontline deal, it looks like Microsoft will be deploying HP ProLiant servers to host its Azure Windows application cloud service; Dell got to build the prototype, but it looks like HP won the deal. Which is what happens when you are the volume leader in X64 server shipments.


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TABLE OF CONTENTS
The System iWant, 2010 Edition: Big Boxes

Analysts Bid Good Riddance to IT Recession

Microsoft, HP Talk Up Frontline Integrated Systems

Mad Dog 21/21: Orwell's Flat

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