HP takes on Sun and IBM 

Prasanto K Roy
New York, Sep 12

In a packed media event in New York City today, HP launched the Superdome,
HP’s fastest commercial computer so far. The company also says it’s the world’s
fastest and most powerful Unix server.

"This is a watershed day for us," said Carly Fiorina, CEO, HP.
"We’re raising the bar on what it takes to be in this market."

Part of the HP 9000 family of Unix servers, the Superdome ships with up to 32
processors and 256 GB of memory. A 64 processor version planned for later this
year will be crucial for HP’s positioning in the high end of Unix servers that
power dotcom and e-enabled businesses.

The launch venue was significant–a hotel on Wall Street. HP wants to make a
splash with big businesses going for the e, staving off stiff competition there,
as well as impress the stock market and its analysts into giving it better
valuations. Financial analysts have criticized its Unix server business, sending
shares down. Fiorina has taken the offensive here, saying "we have the best
servers in the market, bar none", reorganizing the sales force, and
countering analyst concerns and competitor jibes.

HP launched the Superdome in a crowded, but rapidly growing Unix server
market. The high-end Unix server market is building up the competition–Sun has
the ageing Starfire and the upcoming Ultrasparc III-based Serengeti, Compaq has
the 32 processor Wildfire, IBM a 24 processor S80, and SGI a 512 processor

HP rules the midrange of this market, but has been slow in the low end, where
Sun is strong, and in the high end, where so far it has not had the models to
compete with IBM’s high end RS/6000 products. HP was once the UNIX systems
leader, but lost that leadership to Sun, which gained the most from the Internet
boom. According to IDC, Sun has the largest market share for Unix servers. (Sun
had about a third of the $ 26 billion Unix server market last year, HP had a
quarter, and IBM about 20 percent, according to IDC. More significantly, Sun
grew well last year, while HP and IBM slowed down).

"Over the years, HP has taken a rap for being too analytic,"
Fiorina said, "but this is a radically different go-to-market approach.
Fourteen months ago we were basically getting killed in the dotcom space…we
gave our competition a hole big enough to drive a truck through. But no

The high-end Unix server segment is important, because it’s typically
surrounded by services and backed with lots of other equipment, adding up to
both revenues and margins. And unlike in the low-end server space where Intel
and Windows NT have made big inroads, there is very little at the high end to
challenge the RISC Unix servers. Users for such large Unix systems are big
enterprises with databases tracking thousands of customers online, or a very
complex supply chain. Amazon.com, for instance, is a big user of HP 9000 V-class
servers, and has been using a Superdome.

HP says it already has 150 orders, including and 16 pre-shipment orders that
have been fulfilled, for the SuperDome. The machine, manufactured at its
Roseville plant near Sacramento, California, is now shipping in the 32-processor

Pay as you go

Even more significant than the technology and power is the focus HP is
putting on what it calls the utility model. As with a power utility, where you
pay for the electricity you actually use, HP will let customers opt for a number
of flexible packages, which cut down up-front investment.

"We have placed a bet on the future of computing," Fiorina said,
"and it’s on utility computing. The option to pay by usage lengthens the
life of systems and equipment, and drops the entry barrier."

Customers can still buy the systems outright, but there are a number of
options. The first is HP’s `ICOD’ or Instant Capacity on Demand model
introduced in June for its V-class servers. In this, a system may be shipped
with a larger number of CPUs and memory than a customer needs. For instance, a
customer who wants a four CPU system now but expects more capacity needs in the
near future pays for four CPUs, but gets a Superdome with eight or 12 CPUs–but
only four enabled. Later, when traffic increases, for instance, he can pay for
more capacity, as HP will unlock additional CPUs remotely without bringing down
the system. This is similar to software vendor practice–for instance, Adobe
sells CDs with hundreds of encrypted fonts, and as you pay, you get the unlock
codes for the fonts. There’s even a seasonal variant being planned where this
can be done for a peak season like Christmas, and then reverted to a lower-cost
configuration for regular seasons.

The other option is the utility model. A customer installs the Superdome at
his premises but does not buy it–he pays HP for the power and capacity he
actual uses. Software in the server tracks this and sends HP an e-mail, and a
monthly bill is generated, similar to an electricity bill. This is probably
unique for hardware, though it is commonplace for systems, software or support.

PA RISC now, Intel Inside in 2002

The high-end server project at HP was originally code-named `Halfdome’,
after the famed granite peak in Yosemite National Park, USA. The name almost
carried on to the final product. Then HP Marketing realized that `Half’
doesn’t make an inspiring name, and `Superdome sounds a lot sexier.’ Though it
joins the HP 9000 family of A, L, N and V-class servers, this won’t be called
the Z-class or something else–the name Superdome sticks.

The computer will consist of four processor cells each with separate own
memory and I/O. Using a high-speed bus and switches, eight of these building
cells can be assembled into a 32 processor configuration, and two of these 32
processor blocks can be joined into the full-fledged 64 processor Superdome
scheduled to arrive later.

Like the entire HP9000 family, the Superdome runs on the HP PA RISC
processors. The Intel-HP IA64 `Itanium’ processor family will be supported in
late 2002, for which it will merely need a cell-board upgrade, Duane Zitzner,
President (Computing Group), HP, told Cyber News Service. So far, only SGI has
announced dual-processor future support. Further, like the V-class, the
Superdome can be clustered in groups of four for supercomputing-class power for
technical power users.


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