Volume 3, Number 22 -- June 15, 2006

HP Says It Will "Blade Everything" As Next Gen Boxes Launch

Published: June 15, 2006

by Timothy Prickett Morgan

Hewlett-Packard yesterday launched the next generation of its BladeSystem blade servers at an event in its Palo Alto, California, headquarters, and Ann Livermore, who is essentially third in command at HP (after chairman Patricia Dunne and chief executive officer Mark Hurd), was on hand to put the announcement into a much larger perspective. While the new BladeCenter c-Class machines might be able to give HP the pole position in the blade server market, HP laid it on a bit thick in trying to position a server launch as something much larger than that.

This is, of course, typical in the IT business these days. You can't just sell a good server, like Compaq did. You have to sell a new approach to IT, one that allows companies to reduce hardware and administrative costs, and one that presents a full portfolio of hardware, software, management tools, and services that allows companies to do more with less. So Livermore's introduction to the topic--and when the event started, no one had any idea what the launch was for, since it was billed as "HP to Launch New Era of Business Computing with Next-Generation Infrastructure"--was peppered with phrases like "breakthrough architecture" and a "new computing paradigm." Well, what the new BladeSystem blade servers and their related chassis seem to embody is good, old-fashioned systems engineering. But it might be too boring and undramatic to say that.

Livermore, who is the executive vice president of HP's Technology Solutions Group, was spot on when she said that HP had to create systems that dramatically reduce installation time, cut costs for administration, and reduce barriers to change within an IT organization. And most MIS managers and chief financial officers would probably nod their heads in assent to the statistics she cited from IDC, which say the cost of managing IT assets like servers and storage is three times greater than the cost of the products themselves. "That's no good," Livermore said, adding that companies had tried to cut costs by shifting to commodity platforms, outsourcing, and offshoring. "While this may help some, it does not solve the fundamental problem."

What all server vendors are looking for, of course, is a stack of servers, hardware, and systems management tools that are integrated and easy to use. Blade servers are very popular, in concept, because they engender a certain amount of lock in. Once you pick a chassis, you are going to build it out. Once you pick management software, you are going to use it because it is tailored for the blades, and you are not going to want to use two tools, so choosing another blade vendor is now less likely. Once you get used to having the network encapsulated and somewhat virtualized within a chassis--and the consequent reduction in wires and power supplies--you are going to stick with that, and rack-mounted or tower servers will seem unappealing. However, we all have to remember that blade servers are only about 5 percent of the market today, and they may only reach 20 percent of the market by 2010. This is still, in many ways, a niche market, and one that has seen the downfall of several players and a market dominated by IBM and HP. Density is not everything, and rack and tower designs will persist for a long time to come.

But, at least when it comes to blades, density and integration are key, and some customers are going to take a shining to the new c7000 BladeSystem chassis and the new ProLiant BL460c and BL480c server blades. The chassis comes in a 10U form factor, and it can house up to 16 blade servers. Unlike IBM, which kept the dimensions of its blades the same as it moved to a new BladeCenter H chassis (which had a little more room on the top and bottom of the chassis to allow more space for peripherals and for heat dissipation), HP is launching a much more compact blade form factor with the c-Class machines. Paul Miller, vice president of marketing for HP's Industry Standard Server division, said that by keeping the existing form factor, IBM had given up two blades compared to HP, and made much of the fact that IBM's design was five years old. To be fair, HP's prior blades were huge by comparison--something IBM's blade execs made fun of at the BladeCenter H announcement earlier this year. Still, customers who want to keep filling up their chassis using the old blades will be able to do so, since HP will continue to sell the existing b-Class blades through 2007 and will support them through 2012.

The c7000 chassis can have up to four redundant I/O fabrics, and has an aggregate bandwidth on its backplane of 5 Tbps. It has N+1 and N+N power redundancy, and because power supplies run most efficiently at peak power, it has the ability to turn power supplies on and off as needed in the rack. This simple engineering change (simple in concept, anyway) can cut as much as 30 percent of power usage of a chassis. The chassis also take a page out of the HP LaserJet printer line and now includes an LCD panel, called the Onboard Administrator, that allows administrators to do tasks right from that front panel without resorting to booting up a session on a management console. The new blades also include a beefier and blade-specific version of HP's System Insight Manager admin tool, which is called Insight Control Data Center Edition. How this software is different from SIM or the just-announced HP Control Tower (acquired from now-defunct blade pioneer RLX Technologies and geared only for Linux-based blades) is unclear. Another big change with the c7000 chassis is that cooling is not on each blade, but centralized in the chassis. Power supplies are also integrated into the bottom of the chassis, rather than being external in other rack enclosures.

The c7000 ranges in price from $4,599 for a unit with single-phase power, two power supplies, four fans, and trial licenses to HP's ProLiant Essentials BladeSystem Management Suite provisioning and patch management software, to $8,283 for a unit with three-phase power, six power supplies, six fans, and 16 BMS licenses.

As part of the launch, HP has released two new blade servers, which are based on Intel's latest 5000P chipset and which will support the current "Dempsey" Xeon DP and impending "Woodcrest" Xeon DP processors. The BL460c blade is a two-socket server that uses the 3 GHz Dempsey chip with a 667 MHz front side bus and the 3.2 GHz runs the faster 1.07 GHz bus. It is a half-height blade, which is how HP can cram 16 of them in a chassis vertically. The blade supports 16 GB of DDR2, fully buffered main memory today, and will support twice that when 4 GB DIMMs become available. The blade has two hot-plug, 2.5-inch SAS or SATA drives, and has two Gigabit Ethernet ports. An additional two I/O mezzanine cards can be plugged in to add more ports. The BL460c also includes HP's Integrated Lights Out 2 service processor and licenses to a virtual KVM and remote console for free. With the a single 3.2 GHz Dempsey chip, 2 GB of main memory and no disk, this blade server costs $2,829.

The BL480c is a full-height blade server, which means that only eight of them can plug into the c7000 chassis. While this blade is only a two-socket machine like the BL460c, it has room for more memory and disk expansion. The BL480c supports the Dempsey chips running at 3.2 GHz or 3.73 GHz using the 1.07 GHz front side bus, or 3 GHz using the slower 667 MHz bus. It can support up to 48 GB of DDR2 main memory, and has space for four hot-plug small form factor SAS or SATA drives. It also has optional Emulex or QLogic Fibre Channel adapter cards for linking out to storage area networks.

A base configuration of the BL480c blade comes with two Dempsey chips, 4 GB of main memory, a P400i RAID controller, four Gigabit Ethernet ports plus on e 100 Mbit port for the ILO 2 service processor, and no disk; it costs $4,799.

The c7000 blade chassis supports Gigabit Ethernet switches from Cisco Systems, 4 Gb SAN switches from Brocade, among other networking gear. The new BladeSystem design also includes a nifty gadget called Virtual Connect, which is based on technology pulled from the NonStop server. With Virtual Connect, you wire the blades to networks and storage once, which is actually virtualized by some electronics in the chassis. From that point on, when administrators want to rewire blades, networks, and SANs, they do it virtually, not physically, from within Virtual Connect's software.

HP is taking orders for the machines now, and will begin shipping them in early July. They support Windows, Linux, NetWare, SCO UnixWare and OpenServer, Solaris, and OS/2 Warp Server (if you can believe it). VMware's virtualization hypervisor is also supported.

So that is the engineering part. But perhaps the most interesting thing that both Livermore and Miller said yesterday is that HP's strategy, ultimately, was to "blade everything." Including its Superdome and NonStop server lines. Well, to a certain extent, with the BL60p blades, HP has already done that. These Itanium blades support HP-UX and could easily support OpenVMS or the NonStop Unix kernel and its related fault tolerant database. And, perhaps someday, they will.

But during a press question and answer session after the announcement, Livermore backed off a little on the "blade everything" statement. "This is going to be the fastest-growing architecture in history," she explained, saying that the idea that HP could take its investments in Superdome, ProLiant and NonStop machines and spread them into the blade market would be a good thing for HP to do. However, racks and towers will be around for a long time. "There is no question that you will see us continuing to sell our Superdome and ProLiant systems." And that was not an ominous statement about NonStop, either. So don't get the wrong idea.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
Shannon O'Donnell, Timothy Prickett Morgan
Publisher and Advertising Director: Jenny Thomas
Advertising Sales Representative: Kim Reed
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