Volume 16, Number 36 -- September 17, 2007

HP Beats the System i on Integration for Midrange Shops

Published: September 17, 2007

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

As readers of the IT Jungle family of newsletters know full well, I am a hardware junkie and I am impressed when someone does something clever and useful with a piece of machinery. There are tens of thousands of hardware engineers worldwide designing and implementing sophisticated ideas, turning them into real objects, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for what they do. But I also find it equally mystifying why some ideas, which are obvious as far as I am concerned, take so blasted long to get implemented by server makers. Such is the case with blade servers designed specifically for small businesses, and in particular ones that can run the OS/400 and now the i5/OS operating systems.

Mark Shearer, formerly the general manager of the now split up System i division and now the senior vice president and business line manager for the Power Systems division, confirmed back in July that IBM would indeed finally deliver a blade server running its commercial-grade dual-core Power6 processor some time in the fourth quarter. And this blade server will support i5/OS in addition to AIX and Linux. IBM has sold a PowerPC 970 blade for its BladeCenter server line for a few years that supports AIX and Linux, but because these processors do not support OS/400 and i5/OS memory tags (implemented in hardware) as well as some other PowerPC AS instructions, these blades could not support OS/400 or i5/OS. As IBM preps its Power6 blade for that fourth quarter launch, a resurgent Hewlett-Packard has launched a new BladeSystem chassis called the c3000, nicknamed "Shorty," that is aimed specifically at SMB customers. Whatever IBM does, as far as System i customers and their resellers are concerned, Big Blue better build something an awful lot like Shorty or it will miss the SMB target. Shorty has the right level of integration for SMB customers, and is in the right form factor and capacity to be appealing to them, too.

Of course, it took HP forever to get here. As an HP shop, IT Jungle has been pestering the higher-ups for a smaller blade server chassis that used 120-volt power rather than 240-volt power as all other blade servers do for as long as we have owned our half-rack of ProLiant systems. When I was choosing our systems, I wanted blade servers because of density and integration they offered. But if you wanted a real blade server using full-powered Xeon processors and you only had 120-volt power, then you needed to buy racks back in 2003, when we installed our data closet. (We don't have a data center, but a part of a kitchen in a studio apartment that has been converted into an office and data closet; that's world headquarters of Guild Companies, Incorporated. Lucky for me, the kitchen had 20-amp, 120-volt power for an electric stove and air vents to get rid of heat.) For years, I have been telling HP to offer a smaller blade server chassis that could use less power, since I do not need 14 or 16 blade servers--I need a half dozen. They didn't listen, and neither did the other server makers I pestered, which is why I started building my own machinery. So far, I have replaced 60 percent of my ProLiant machines with homemade, low-powered servers that exactly match our workloads.

If HP or IBM had launched something like Shorty back in 2003, I would have never done all of that work. And back in 2003, about the same time I was buying our first systems, I was crabbing that IBM really needed to get an iSeries blade server to market. I laid out the business case for iSeries blades running OS/400 back then, and every word I said is still true today--and represents requirements still unfulfilled:

"Another big reason to push for OS/400 blades is that many customers want dense, rack-mounted iSeries machines. The AS/400 started out in racks, and just as the industry moved en force to racks, IBM abandoned them. IBM has not brought back racks for the iSeries, but OS/400 blades for the BladeCenter would make it possible. People want racks."

"There would be problems with OS/400 blade servers, of course. For one, the BladeCenter runs on 240-volt power lines; whereas small AS/400 and iSeries servers have always plugged right into normal 120-volt sockets. IBM needs to fix that and to deliver a 120-volt version of the BladeCenter. The other problem would be explaining to customers when they need a real iSeries and when they can use OS/400 blades. The iSeries channel will want to sell the more expensive product, of course, because they will make more money on it in the short run. But a well thought-out OS/400 blade server strategy, coupled with the ability to integrate OS/400, Windows, Linux, and AIX workloads in a single chassis, and internalizing the server network inside of that chassis, might help make OS/400 server sales a pull, rather than a push."

Shorty has its blades oriented horizontally when it is in a rack and, just special for SMB customers, can be mounted on a wheeled pedestal like the Compaq deskside servers from a decade ago, before rack-mounted machines took over the data center. The Shorty chassis has room for four full-height blades or eight half-height blades--half the number that fit in the c7000 chassis that HP announced last summer and that has been driving its sales and its market share gains since that time. The Shorty chassis has a 6U form factor, compared to the 10U form factor of the c7000 chassis. It has a single Gigabit Ethernet link and three interconnect bays for linking server, disk, and tape blades together inside the chassis; the enterprise-class chassis has eight bays for interconnect switches. The unit has up to six fans (compared to 10 for the larger chassis) and runs on either 110-volt or 240-volt power. The box also has only one on-board service processor, while the c7000 has redundant service processors in case one fails. The c7000 mounts its blades vertically instead of horizontally, but when the c3000 is tipped on the side to be put on wheels for a deskside or closet unit, the blades are vertical. (The orientation does not make that big of a difference, although vertical blades help with cooling a bit.)

All existing c-Class blade servers made by HP can plug into the c3000 chassis, just as they do in the c7000 chassis, which means customers can choose from Xeon, Opteron, or Itanium blades to support their workloads and a mix of Windows, Linux, HP-UX, and OpenVMS. The SB600c iSCSI storage blade that HP announced earlier this year plugs into the unit; this device has a RAID 5 controller, a Xeon processor running Microsoft's Windows Storage Server R2, and eight SAS disks for a total capacity of 1.16 TB; SB400c expansion blades, which have six SAS drives on them, can also plug into the chassis, and another 9 TB of disk capacity can be attached to the unit and shared by the blade servers inside of it through outboard iSCSI links. The chassis also supports a DVD drive that can be shared by all server blades, the Ultrium 448c tape blade, and various kinds of switches to connect to external storage and networks.

The Shorty unit includes a 3-inch LCD screen that interfaces with the service processor, which has been equipped with simplified management and monitoring software for shops that would not know a Fibre Channel port from a Gigabit Ethernet plug. Because of the blade architecture, all components in the unit slide in and plug directly into the backplane for power and connectivity. There are no cables, which makes it a lot easier than installing surround sound on your HDTV. HP has also equipped the service processor with features to allow partners to remotely monitor and manage the c3000 chassis and its components for the many SMBs that do not have a formal IT shop to maintain the gear they tuck away in corners and closets.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of this new c3000 chassis is that HP has done the work and testing to ensure that it can run in a 100-degree (Fahrenheit, people, not Celsius) environment, which I can tell you from personal experience is not hard to hit inside a data closet on a hot summer day in New York City. By allowing it to operate at such temperatures, the Shorty chassis is going to end up all over the company--just like minicomputers and midrange servers from days gone by did. HP is hoping to generate some marketing buzz because of this, and the Shorty chassis has its own MySpace page and HP is hoping that customers talk about the weird places they put these boxes in.

The c3000 chassis costs $4,299, but loading it up with the baby SAN, three blades, the tape blade, and some switches will put the hardware in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 at list price. This is roughly the same price point as a reasonably configured, unlimited user System i 520 Express machine. And, of course, the HP configuration is a complete baby data center.

This level of integration, since the System i is supposed to be all about integration, is exactly what the iSeries and System i should have been leading on, not following with. And this fact was not lost on HP's Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for the Enterprise Storage and Servers unit, who put together the presentation for the launch. Check out this foil carefully:

The first thing that caught my eye was "AS/400, iSeries migration," but perhaps the most important thing on that chart is "Unlimited channel partner opportunities." This box can be plugged together quickly, has no wires, and offers remote support through the channel. And it delivers a lot of functionality for the money in a box that is the right size for an SMB.

IBM, your move. Make it a good one.


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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
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