HP Talks Up Its Blade Server Prowess, Doubles Density
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Hewlett-Packard may not have invented the concept of the commercial blade server, but it sure has generated at lot of interest in the concept in the past two years. Blade computing is an offshoot of server technologies long employed by telecom and service providers, and HP is making the rounds, talking very generally about its blade server roadmap as it launches a new double-dense blade server and boasts of its recent market share gains against rival IBM.
While RLX Technologies and a bunch of other startups commercialized the blade server concept, HP jumped into the market in a big way in early 2002 when it first starting shipping the "QuickBlade" ProLiant BLe blade servers, which cram 20 uniprocessor Pentium III-based servers into a single 3U chassis and up to 280 processors into a single 42U rack. While this was an interesting feat, these machines lacked oomph and bandwidth, and that is why HP quickly rolled out two-way and then four-way blade servers that used Intel's Xeon processors. While much hotter--and therefore not able to be packed in such large numbers into a rack--the Xeons offered the kind of processing power customers wanted from blade machines. By September 2002, IBM had gotten its BladeCenter chassis, which packs 14 dual-processor blades into a 7U chassis, and the game was afoot. While HP has shipped 50,000 blade servers by November 2002, IBM very quickly caught up, and then bypassed HP in terms of quarterly market share.
James Mouton, vice president of platforms at HP's Industry Standard Server unit, said that as of the end of May, HP had shipped more than 100,000 blade servers, and has retaken the lead in blade market share away from IBM. According to market share figures from Gartner, HP shipped 20,042 blade servers in the first quarter of 2004, a 1 percent increase and giving it 36 percent of the blade shipments, compared to IBM's shipment of 18,760 units, a decrease of 7 percent from this time last year and causing its market share to drop to 33.7 percent. In terms of revenue, HP's share of the blade server market, according to Gartner, was 45.2 percent, compared to IBM's 32.3 percent. Of course, with blade servers only costing around $5,000 a pop, there is not a lot of money to be bragging about here. In a world where companies will only consume around 250,000 blade servers in 2005 against a possible 4 million to 5 million unit shipments across all servers, the blade server market is utterly dwarfed by general purpose machines. But size isn't everything, at least for a nascent market. "The blade server market is a real one, and we are growing faster than that market," says Mouton.
One of the things that has hurt HP is the lack of a dense blade machine that uses Xeons instead of Pentium IIIs. So HP today will announce is so-called "double-dense" ProLiant BL30p blade servers. In essence, HP is putting twice as many blades in the current 6U ProLiant BL p-Class chassis as it can currently ship with the ProLiant BL20p two-way blades. Those ProLiant 20p blades have dual SCSI, hot-swap drives and other electronics that crank out a lot of heat and take up a lot of space. With the ProLiant 30p blades, HP is taking out those SCSI drives and other electronics, putting in a single, skinny IDE drive, and it can therefore put 16 two-way blades, or a total of 32 processors, in a single chassis. That beats IBM's BladeCenter in terms of Xeon processor density, with 224 Xeons per rack compared to IBM's 168 Xeons per rack. Right now, says Mouton, the ProLiant 30p blades are based on Intel's current "Prestonia" Xeon DP processors, but the future "Nocona" 64-bit Xeon processors--due any day now--will eventually snap into the boxes. (It is a logical guess that HP was trying to time the BL30p blade launch with the Noconas.)
The BL30p will sell for $2,349 in a base configuration, and will be available at the end of June. HP will also be selling a blade bundle including VMware's ESX Server partitioning software and Virtual Center management program plus HP Gold or Platinum level support on the BL20p starting at $4,820 per blade. Customers can get a BL chassis loaded with all of this software and eight two-way Xeon BL20p blades for $49,376. Like the other BL blades, HP is emphasizing Windows and Linux operating systems, but it can support any X86-based operating system if customers want to use something else.
Mouton said that HP was still on track with delivering a two-way blade based on Advanced Micro Devices' 64-bit Opteron processors, and said that HP was considering a four-way Opteron blade as well as using the low-heat Opteron LE and Opteron HE processors, which lower the voltage on the Opteron chips (something that only a small percentage of Opterons that come off the line can do) so they can run cooler. He said that HP was still keeping its options open as it finalized the product. He said further that HP was working on an Itanium blade--most likely using the "Deerfield" or future variants of the Itanium Low Voltage processors from Intel--to plug into the BL line. "It is not a matter of if," he explained, "but when."
The main concern he has, as the HP executive who needs to pump up blade sales, is for blades to not get painted into a corner for telcos, service providers, and HPC workloads. That is why HP will be rolling out benchmarks that show the blade servers can run real-world applications, like IBM's own Notes/Domino groupware and PeopleSoft's eponymous ERP suite. "We're working to make sure that blades do not get pushed into a niche vertical, but are seen as horizontal products," he says. "Blades need to be able to do everything a traditional server does, only more efficiently."
As for the prospect of a four-processor blade server with dual core Xeon or Itanium processors, he says this is an interesting possibility, but what will really matter is how well customer applications scale on such an eight-way blade and what it costs them to make it and sell it. Clustering software that better spans blades might make it unnecessary to deliver such a product.