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Volume 1, Number 6 -- March 2, 2004

HP to Push Linux-Based Opteron Servers

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

After 18 months of secret development and the biting of many corporate tongues at Intel Developer Forum two weeks ago, Hewlett-Packard has finally announced it will deliver variants of its ProLiant X86 servers that use Advanced Micro Devices' 64-bit Opteron processors. Like rivals IBM and Sun Microsystems, HP is trying to leverage the Opteron where it can do the most good while not upsetting the whole server applecart.

It is hard to say whether or not HP's support for Opteron is a watershed event for AMD because we will only know in hindsight after the tier one server vendors ramp up sales and customers gain experience with Opteron machines. Intel is not going to take the threat of the Opteron standing still, as the launch of the 64-bit extended Xeon DP and MP processors last week demonstrates. What can honestly predicted at this early stage of the Opteron game is that the increasingly enthusiastic adoption of Opterons by IBM, Sun, and now HP is going to cause a feedback loop that--unless something goes radically wrong with the design or the manufacturing of these processors--will help them get established in the marketplace as a credible and reasonable alternative to Intel's Xeon processors.

With these three vendors supporting Opteron, the pressure will now be on Dell to also adopt Opteron to compete for sales, particularly for workloads that require dense packing and high floating point performance. Competition is good. Intel, which has a virtual monopoly on desktop and server processors, is going to get some, and thanks to AMD's attacks, it is going to give some back, too.

There is going to be a lot of tongue wagging about what this all means for the Itanium processor that Intel and HP have been championing. People are going to say things that will make you cock your head to the side like a perplexed dog. Here's one example from yesterday's announcement from Scott Stallard, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers division: "Our commitment and plans for Itanium do not change with these announcements. In fact," he added, "they are strengthened."

Whether or not Intel or HP like to think about it or admit it publicly, when it comes to Linux and Windows workloads, the case for Itanium has clearly been undercut by the Opterons and now the Xeon-64s, particularly for entry and midrange machines that make up the bulk of shipments. How deep those cuts go depends on how well or poorly the Linux and Windows channels do in adapting their applications for Itanium and how the advent of Xeon-64 and the growing support for Opteron both change where and when application providers support what particular chip architecture. We'll know better in about 18 months, after the ecosystems for Xeon-64, Opteron, and Itanium grow or atrophy.

To put it bluntly, this whole server racket is getting interesting, and more so by the week. And that is good for customers and probably good for vendors over the long haul. But as this X86 server market heats up with competition and choice, remember that anyone who says that they can predict the life or death of any of these platforms over the next couple of years is unacquainted with the ups and downs of the computer business, or is trying to sell you a bill of goods, or is just plain stupid. The IT biz doesn't work that way. AMD is getting its shot at the bigtime, and now, all it has to do is not screw it up.

What HP did not announce yesterday, by the way, was a sweeping agreement to use Opterons anywhere and everywhere it uses Xeons. According to Brad Anderson, general manager of HP's Industry Standard Server Group, the company is at first picking weak spots in its Xeon-based ProLiant server line and putting in Opterons where it can give the ProLiants a better shot against IBM's xSeries, Dell's PowerEdge, and Fujitsu-Siemens' Primergy lines. Sun will eventually be a contender in the X86 space, but it just now getting its sea legs in that rough market.

What HP has announced is it will ship a two-way and four-way ProLiant server using the Opteron 200 series processors and will also deliver a two-way ProLiant BL blade server. HP has also said that it will support 64-bit versions of Linux within 90 days of when the boxes first start to ship and 64-bit versions of Windows when it becomes available later this year for the Opteron and Xeon-64 chips. It looks like software support is going to lag hardware availability on these boxes for a while. What HP also did not announce last week was that it was porting its HP-UX, OpenVMS, or NonStop Kernel operating systems to either the Xeon-64 or the Opteron platforms. Unless something radical happens with the Itanium chip, this will not change.

The ProLiant DL145 is a two-way Opteron server that bears a considerable resemblance to the DL140 entry rack-mounted server that HP announced last fall using Xeon DP processors. The DL145 can be equipped with Opteron 200 processors running at 1.6 GHz, 1.8 GHz, or 2.2 GHz, and comes with 1GB or 2 GB of base memory, expandable to 16 GB. (It uses 333 MHz PC2700 main memory.) The Opteron processor has an on-chip memory controller and 800 MHz HyperTransport links between the processors; it has 1 MB of integrated L2 cache. The DL145 has an embedded ATA controller (with a SCSI option coming further down the road), two drive bays, two integrated Gigabit Ethernet ports, and a single PCI-X slot. The DL140 can use 2.4 GHz or 3.06 GHz "Prestonia" Xeon DP processors with 512 KB of L2 cache or a 3.2 GHz Xeon DP with 1 MB of cache. The front side bus on the Xeon-based machine runs at 533 MHz. All other essential features of the DL140 and the DL145, aside from memory capacity, are the same.

HP says that it can charge a "slight" premium for this Opteron box and still deliver a lot more performance. How much more performance? As always, that depends. Anderson says that on benchmark tests based on 32-bit Web workloads, the DL145 outperformed the DL140 by anywhere from 10 to 15 percent, and on memory-intensive applications (where bandwidth is as much of an issue as is the size of the address space), the performance benefit of the Opteron machine ranged from 30 to 40 percent. Assuming that HP has negotiated a better price for chips with AMD than it can get with Intel--and this is the only reason to make such a deal--then it seems clear that HP will be able to go after Dell with better price/performance and maybe even get more profits. And it will be able to match IBM with its eServer 325 and Sun with its Sun Fire V20z, which are both two-way Opteron boxes.

A base ProLiant DL145 with a 1.6 GHz Opteron, 1 GB of main memory, and a 40 GB disk costs $1,599. A base ProLiant DL140 with a 2.4 GHz Xeon, 1 GB of main memory, and an 80 GB disk costs $1,149. That's a 39 percent price premium. Going for a heavier configuration, a loaded two-way DL145 with 2.2 GHz Opteron processors, 2 GB of main memory, and a single 40 GB disk drive costs $4,298. A DL140 using the 3.2 GHz Xeon DP tops out with only 4 GB of maximum main memory; with two processors, 2GB of main memory, and a single 80 GB disk drive costs $2,999. In effect, the Opteron box has an initial price that appears to be 43 percent higher on a configured machine. That price differential, as you can see, is roughly parallel to the performance boost HP says to expect for certain applications running on Opteron compared to Xeon. Obviously, discounting will occur from these ceilings downward, particularly in deals where multiple vendors are in on the action with different products.

In the second quarter of this year, HP will ship the Opteron-based ProLiant 585, a variant of its four-way ProLiant 580, which is based on the "Gallatin" Xeon MP processor. This machine will use the 1.8GHz and 2.2 GHz Opteron 800 series processors. A base ProLiant 585 will come with 2 GB of main memory, expandable to 64 GB, and has room for four disk drives in its 4U chassis. Anderson said that depending on the workload, this machine can offer between 5 and 40 percent better performance than a ProLiant DL580 using the Xeon MPs.

The exact configuration of the ProLiant BL blade servers, which are due in the third or fourth quarter, is unclear. HP would not say if it is using the new Opteron HE or Opteron EE low-power variants of the chip in the blades, but the odds favor it, particularly since the regular Opteron chips and the HE and EE variants have the same pin-outs as the regular (and hotter) Opterons. They also command a premium price, which HP certainly wants to charge.

In an interview, Anderson said that HP has no plans to create a variant of its popular two-way DL360 or DL380 servers, which are based on Pentium 4 and Xeon chips, and said further that the company did not have plans to ship an eight-way Opteron that is a variant of the DL760 or DL780 chassis. Anderson said that volumes in the four-way market had dropped off in recent years because four "Foster" or Gallatin Xeon MP chips did not offer enough of an performance boost compared to the faster "Prestonia" Xeon DP processors, which have clock speeds that are 50 percent higher.

HP reiterated that it would be first to market with the "Nocona" Xeon DP processors, which have 64-bit capabilities, in the second quarter, and would ramp up the use of the Xeon MP variants of these chips as soon as they become available in early 2005. AMD has a window of opportunity, so long as Microsoft and the open source Linux community can deliver support for Opterons in 64-bit mode in the summer, as expected. If the software gets delayed, then AMD will lose a significant advantage over Intel's 64-bit Xeons.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Managing Editor: Shannon Pastore
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Kevin Vandever,
Shannon O'Donnell, Victor Rozek, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
Contact the Editors: To contact anyone on the IT Jungle Team
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